The struggle of intimacy
I’m writing this review on Monday night, so there’s no way to know if the darkest timeline of Election Day 2016 has come true before it goes to print. But one immensely worrying signifier of the warped American values that could end up screwing this pooch is the fact that a film with a heart as big and a scope as intimate and epic as Barry Jenkins’ wonderful Moonlight gets dinged with an R rating for “some sexuality” and “language throughout,” while any big-budget movie fetishizing mass human slaughter gets the more family-friendly PG-13 rating from the MPAA.
The only previous feature from Jenkins was a scruffy but smart 2008 Before Sunrise riff called Medicine for Melancholy. It was a minor but charming indie romantic comedy, a portrait of two African-Americans tentatively connecting in a white hipster scene, but it was not necessarily a signpost pointing toward great things ahead. Nearly a decade later, the fully realized and remarkably assured Moonlight feels more like a hard-earned career-capper rather than the career-igniter that it should become.
Moonlight follows an abused, bullied, painfully shy, gay African-American male named Chiron from tortured boyhood through tortured adolescence and on to tortured young adulthood. The story is divided into three chapters, and each one is titled with one of the protagonist’s various identities—the belittled “Little” as a child, the tentatively self-realizing Chiron as a teenager, and the self-denying criminal “Black” as an adult—to symbolize the various personae he tries on for size throughout his life. The film is short on subtlety but overflowing with empathy and beauty.
Each chapter also features a patient, intricately crafted sequence between Chiron and his childhood pal Kevin. Targeted as a homosexual ever since childhood, the nearly mute Chiron perpetually cowers throughout the first half of Moonlight, as though expecting a blow. The more outwardly masculine Kevin is able to pass as straight on the schoolyard, only finally sexually connecting with Chiron as a teenager before a world-shattering betrayal alters both of their trajectories.
Beyond Jenkins’ skimpy resume, there also wasn’t much in the developing career of cinematographer James Laxton (he shot Medicine for Melancholy, but also lensed the last two Kevin Smith films) to indicate that he could create such a swooning, richly layered visual aesthetic. The style in Moonlight is audacious but not ostentatious, like a dialed-down Emmanuel Lubezki, textured and precise without overwhelming the characters.
It’s hard to single out a performance for praise in the film’s terrific ensemble cast, but as Juan, a drug dealer who becomes a sort-of mentor to Chiron, Mahershala Ali casts an enormous shadow over the film, even though he only appears in the first third. Juan proves a better influence than the boy’s crackhead mother, but he’s also the guy who sold her the crack in the first place. Ali turns Juan’s realization of his own limitations as a father figure into some of the most devastating acting moments of the year.