Moonlight (2016) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A specific lifetime observed in three acts

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Sensitive and empathetic, “Moonlight” is a simple but eloquent coming-of-age tale packed with haunting human moments. While its hero and background are quite specific, we notice universal themes from its intimate drama as watching its hero struggling to find his place in the world, and the movie thoughtfully and poignantly presents how his identity is shaped by his harsh environment – and how he comes to find some hope in the end.

Mainly set in Liberty City, a black neighborhood in Miami which has been notorious for crime and poverty for many years, the movie is divided into three episodic parts, and the first part, titled “Little”, opens with the sequence showing the accidental encounter between Chiron (Alex Hibbert) and Juan (Mahershala Ali). Chiron is a little young elementary school kid, and we see him being chased by other boys and then hiding inside one of nearby boarded-up apartments. Juan is a local drug dealer who happens to be around there while taking care of his criminal business, and he kindly approaches to Chiron after those boys eventually go away. Although he remains mostly silent and awkward during his encounter with Juan, Chiron gradually opens up himself to Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), and Juan becomes a sort of father figure to Chiron as they spend more time together.

Meanwhile, we observe how hard it is for Chiron to go through everyday in his poor neighborhood. Nicknamed “Little”, he is alienated from most of his schoolmates except his only friend Kevin (Jaden Piner), and his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) does not help him much as she begins to tumble into the pit of drug addiction. She happens to be one of Juan’s usual customers, and there is a quiet but painful moment when Chiron asks Juan some simple but hard questions not long after he endures his mother’s worst side fueled by her drug addiction.

As beginning its second part, titled “Chiron”, the movie moves forward to several years later. Played by Ashton Sanders from this point, Chiron now becomes a teenager boy, but life is still difficult for him as before. He is tormented by his schoolmates just for not looking tough and masculine enough, and his mother keeps going down to another bottom while being mean and vicious to her own son.

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And then there comes an unexpected moment. During one night, Chiron happens to spend some time with Kevin, who is played by Jharrel Jerome during the second part. As they talk with each other alone on a local beach, they come to feel a certain mutual feeling they cannot understand well but follow anyway without much hesitation, but then their relationship is broken due to a cruel incident at their school, and that eventually leads to a harrowing scene of pent-up fury which ends with an irreversible consequence.

The third part of the story, titled “Black”, shows Chiron after another several years, played by Trevante Rhodes from this point. After being released from jail, Chiron has been involved in drug dealing around Atlanta, and now he is in a position not so different from Juan’s. He looks quite different in a hardened appearance mainly represented by his muscular body and gold false teeth, and he goes by his new name “Black”, which is actually a nickname given to him by Kevin in that time.

However, there is still a lonely, wounded boy remained inside him, and that aspect is accentuated by the reappearance of two people from his past. Paula, who has recently recovered from her addiction, wants to meet her estranged son for apologizing for her abusive behaviors in the past, and then there is Kevin, played by André Holland during the third part. Like Paula, he wants to meet Chiron for reconciliation, and he suggests that Chiron drop by a diner in Miami where he works.

So far, I have only described the plot of the film without delving much into many of its memorable moments, which are so simple and delicate with their lyrical touches that I can only enumerate some of them one by one. I found myself touched a lot by Juan’s fatherly care and attention during the scene where he teaches young Chiron how to swim. I could sense how much young Chiron feels hurt and angry during his gut-wrenching scene with his mother, even though we do not hear the words she spews out toward him. The night beach scene between Chiron and Kevin is subtly and tenderly handled as these adolescent boys’ frank conversation about themselves leads to the awakening of their sexuality, and it is devastating to see what transpired between them being cruelly crushed later. While the scene between Chiron and his recovering mother is sad and poignant as they painfully confront their shared past, the scene unfolded at Kevin’s diner is gentle and tentatively hopeful as we observe Chiron’s face being gradually softened in front of his old friend.

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Based on Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”, the movie is the second work from the director/adapter Barry Jenkins, who previously made an impressive debut with “Medicine for Melancholy” (2008). Like that small but lovely romance film set in San Francisco, “Moonlight” is imbued with the distinctive sense of locations, and the cinematographer James Laxton did a superb job of establishing the vivid, realistic atmosphere around the real locations in Miami and South Florida. With its rich color scheme further emphasized by the high contrast between light and shade, the movie often feels like a series of lucid pieces of memories unfolded onto the screen, and the restrained score by Nicholas Britell adds more poetic quality to that.

The cast is flawless with no particular weak spot to notice. Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert are effortlessly connected together in their performance, and the same can be said about Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland. While Mahershala Ali, who has been more notable since his supporting role in TV series “House of Cards”, is fantastic in his nuanced performance, Naomi Harris, who was Oscar-nominated along with Ali, brings considerable amount of humanity to her character, and the special mention goes to Janelle Monáe, a popular singer who definitely demonstrates her other talent through her enjoyable debut performances in this film and “Hidden Figures” (2016).

Good movies can be windows to the life of people different from us, and “Moonlight” is one of such fine, beautiful examples. Around the end of the film, we already come to know a lot about Chiron and his life, and that is why it is very touching to watch him making small, honest forward steps for himself. We understand how hard that is for him – and we know how much he finally feels all right with being himself.

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