Moonlight seems like the kind of story that has been cranked out a thousand times before.
As the film opens, Juan (Mahershala Ali, Luke Cage), a black drug dealer in Miami’s gritty Liberty City neighborhood, is checking on how his business is going. But the film soon moves from the familiar to the foreign, becoming a textured exploration of black masculinity and coming-of-age that plumbs beyond clichés and stereotypes.
Ten-year-old Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) stumbles into Juan’s underworld after seeking refuge from bullies in an abandoned apartment building that’s on Juan’s turf. Silent as a monastery, Chiron doesn’t open up easily but Juan likes the kid anyway and ends up feeding him and taking him home to meet his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae).
Slowly, it’s revealed that Chiron lives with his drug-addicted single mom, Paula (Naomie Harris), and doesn’t have many friends, except for one gregarious classmate, Kevin (Jaden Piner).
Juan, a Cuban immigrant, becomes his father figure, teaching him how to swim and how to deal with life.
But Juan’s wisdom can’t help him with everything. The film follows Chiron through his gawky, taunted teen years (he’s portrayed by an excellent Ashton Sanders) and then into adulthood (by an equally strong Trevante Rhodes, who’s from North Texas) as a young, gay man torn between societal and cultural expectations and his own identity and desires. Similarly, Kevin (Andre Holland as an adult) has gone through his own struggles.
Directed by Barry Jenkins and based on the semi-autobiographical Tarell McCraney play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the film is not just a parade of dysfunction. Instead, it’s a touching, nuanced look at manhood, family and friendship, painting a tender, empathetic portrait of black men rarely seen in American films.
It helps that Moonlight is set in a South Florida that’s always just out of camera range in other Miami films. While the warm, humid days are palpable and the sense of place is unavoidable, touristy Ocean Drive might as well be in a different country.
From its gorgeously shot, quiet and unobtrusive style to its luscious music (one that moves from classical music to Brazilian singer Caetano Veloso’s Cucurrucucú Paloma and Barbara Lewis’ ’60s R&B hit Hello Stranger), Moonlight constantly upends expectations.
Moonlight is the rare film that fulfills the hope that filmgoers have every time the theater goes dark and the curtains part.
Exclusive: Landmark Magnolia, Dallas; Angelika Plano
☆☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Naomie Harris, Trevante Rhodes
Rated: R (sexuality, drug use, brief violence, strong language throughout)
Running time: 110 min.