Movie News & Reviews

‘Moonlight’ shines with a glowing cast and talented director: 3 stars

Growing up in Florida, surrounded by poverty, drugs and crime, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) has inner demons as well.
Growing up in Florida, surrounded by poverty, drugs and crime, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) has inner demons as well.

“Moonlight” is a poetic and poignant story of immense and oppressive loneliness.

As a boy, Chiron is taunted not only by his classmates but also by his own mother.

As a teen, he is harassed by bullies and beaten by the person he would consider his only friend.

As a young man, he sells drugs because one of the only positive relationships he’s ever known is with a dealer.

And at the film’s core is a singular (though ungrammatical) question that echoes in refrain throughout the film:

“Who is you?”

Directed by Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholia”), “Moonlight” tells Chiron’s story in three sections. It’s strangely reminiscent of the 2015 best picture nominee “Boyhood,” which director Richard Linklater filmed over the course of 12 years with the same cast.

But Chiron is actually played by three actors: Alex Hibbert as the 9-year-old, Ashton Sanders as the teen and Trevonte Rhodes as the young adult.

And even though Chiron speaks in monosyllables and keeps everyone at arm’s length, the performances are nearly seamless as each exudes Chiron’s otherness.

Surrounding the actors playing Chiron is a stellar supporting cast.

Mahershala Ali is on screen only briefly, but his presence is immense. He plays Juan, a drug dealer who takes the young Chiron under his wing, giving the boy much-needed food and teaching him to swim in the ocean.

In what might be the year’s most seminal scene, the boy asks Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (singer Janelle Monae of KCK) what the other kids are really saying when they call him a homophobic slur. Chiron follows up by asking how he would know if he was gay.

“You just do,” Juan says. “You don’t gotta know right now. Not yet.”

It’s perfect.

As Chiron’s mom, Naomie Harris deftly evolves from recreational drug user to crack-dependent mother to recovering addict without ever chewing on scenery. Her pain is evident from her first scene, when she’s merely a struggling single mom finding a way to keep her child safe.

The real star here, however, is director and writer Jenkins, who adapted “Moonlight” from a play by Tarell McCraney.

Jenkins’ film clocks in at under two hours, but its scope feels more like a full season of HBO’s “The Wire.” He uses classical music alongside hip-hop to give a simple street story an air of tragedy. He also uses color, focus and framing in ways that call to mind Stanley Kubrick and Terrence Malick (or, at the very least, Paul Thomas Anderson).

And while it might be fair to call those techniques slightly derivative, Jenkins uses them to transform old stereotypes of race, class and poverty into themes that again stir the heart and stimulate the mind.

With material that could have become heavy-handed, Jenkins shows a delicate touch. In nearly any other film, it would be natural to expect the final act to feature a melodramatic death, some sort of violent retribution or, at the very least, a long-winded speech that says exactly the right thing at exactly the right time.

Instead, Jenkins lets the film’s final moments seep in, quietly, tenderly.

Much talk has already been made about “Moonlight” being a sure thing at the Oscars. Others are going to want to segregate it as a “black film” or an “LGBTQ film,” whatever those labels might mean — intentionally or otherwise.

But this is simply a story about a young person’s struggles to discover himself and his own sense of community among the perceptions, preconceptions and prejudices others project upon him.

In other words, “Moonlight” is a purely human film.

(At Alamo Drafthouse, Glenwood Arts, Town Center.)

David Frese: 816-234-4463, @DavidFrese

‘Moonlight’

Rated R. Time: 1:51.

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