“Moonlight” is magic.
So intimate you feel like you’re trespassing on its characters’ souls, so transcendent it’s made visual and emotional poetry out of intensely painful experience, it’s a film that manages to be both achingly familiar and unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins and based on an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” creates such an exceptional level of emotional honesty it universalizes a very specific coming of age experience, that of a gay black man growing from child to adult starting in the 1980s crack cocaine epidemic years in the tough Liberty City area of Miami.
Though McCraney, winner of a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, is gay and Jenkins, whose previous film was 2009’s well-regarded “Medicine for Melancholy,” is not, their backgrounds are remarkably similar.
Though they did not know each other as children, both men grew up a block from each other in the same Liberty City neighborhood and went to the same elementary and middle schools.
More than that, as Jenkins said in an interview in Film Comment magazine, “both his mom and my mom lived through that horrible crack cocaine addiction. And there isn’t a scene with her that didn’t happen to either myself or Tarell.”
That shared experience is one of the things that gives “Moonlight” its special quality, its ability to fuse the tangible authenticity of HBO’s “The Wire” to the wide-screen visual lyricism created by expert cinematographer James Laxton. The result, heightened by close-ups looking directly at the viewer, is the sense that rather than observing its characters’ reality, we are inhabiting it along with them.
Though it covers more than 20 years in its protagonist’s life, “Moonlight” doesn’t tell its story as a continuum but breaks it up into three discrete episodes, each titled with a different name for the character and each featuring a different actor in the role.
Almost miraculously, though the actors never met, never saw one another’s dailies and don’t resemble each other in any obvious way, they play as indisputably the same person.
That’s because Jenkins, working with casting director Yesi Ramirez, looked for the same essential qualities in all three actors: a palpable emotional vulnerability joined to what Jenkins has likened to an iceberg, the ability to quietly convey “the pain beneath the surface.”
The first person we meet in “Moonlight” is not its central character but a charismatic adult named Juan (a completely persuasive Mahershala Ali, Emmy-nominated for “House of Cards”).
Juan is a Miami drug dealer introduced checking up on one of his neighborhood salesmen. Out of the corner of his eye he sees a small boy, maybe 9 or 10, running from a gang of kids out to do him no good.
On an impulse the dealer follows the boy and finds him hiding in an abandoned drug shooting gallery. Though Juan is friendly and nonthreatening, the boy does not respond. Suspicious, watchful, preternaturally quiet and withdrawn, he comes off like someone from a different planet. This is our protagonist, known in this first section simply as Little (Alex Hibbert).
Determined to take the boy home, though the child refuses to provide an address, Juan stops at his own house in the hopes that his young girlfriend Teresa (singer-songwriter Janelle Monae) can get him to talk.
Eventually, Little is taken home, where Juan meets his harried mother Paula (a superlative Naomie Harris), who is as suspicious of Juan as her son is.
Yet an unspoken yearning has passed between Juan and Little, the need the latter has for a father and the former for a son, leading to an unconventional and quietly moving relationship that proves critical in the boy’s emotional life.
The next section is named Chiron, which is Little’s given name. Played by Ashton Sanders, he is 16 now, looking like a refugee from his own life. Chiron’s reluctance to speak has been magnified by his growing sense of sexual difference, the ruthless nature of high school and the savage torments he endures every day. The lively Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), someone he’s known since childhood, is his only friend.
The other element in Chiron’s life that has unquestionably worsened is his mother’s pitiless addiction to crack cocaine, leading to a series of lacerating verbal confrontations both between the two of them and between Paula and Juan.
Harris, a top British actress who has played everyone from James Bond’s Miss Moneypenny to activist Winnie Mandela, is especially strong here, conveying an emotional rawness that is almost too much to witness.
“Moonlight’s” final section is set more than a decade later and stars Trevante Rhodes as Black, the street name the adult Chiron has chosen. What transpires is best left undisclosed except to say this segment is fully as powerful as its predecessors and brings this young man’s story to a resonant and emotional conclusion.
Moments in “Moonlight” bring a whole range of disparate films to mind, its poetic involvement with day-to-day black life, for instance, recalling Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” while its counterpointing of strong, often violent emotion with evocative music (Nicholas Britell did the score) echoing Terence Davies’ “Distant Voices, Still Lives” to mind.
But ultimately, grounded in its potent acting and an unwavering creative vision, “Moonlight” is nothing if not its own film. Its story of aching loneliness, sexual longing and the despair of blasted lives, the emphasis it puts on the great difficulty and the equally powerful necessity of intimate human connection, the way it persuasively insists on the shared humanity of marginalized communities, makes it feel like a film we’ve been waiting for for a very long time.
MPAA rating: R, for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence and language throughout.
Running time: 1 hour, 51 minutes.
Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood, Landmark, West Los Angeles.
Critic’s Choice. “Moonlight.” Superb filmmaking and an exceptional level of emotional honesty universalizes a very specific coming of age experience, that of a gay black man growing from child to adult starting in 1980s Miami’s crack cocaine epidemic years. - Kenneth Turan