The extraordinary new film “Moonlight” exerts a tidal pull on your heartstrings, but honestly: It’s better than that. The reason it’s distinctive has less to do with raw emotion or a relentless assault on your tear ducts, and more to do with the film medium’s secret weapons: restraint, quiet honesty, fluid imagery and an observant, uncompromised way of imagining one outsider’s world so that it becomes our own.
Since its festival premieres in Telluride and Toronto, “Moonlight” has been contending with well-meaning, largely misleading labels of “gay coming-of-age film” or “gay black coming-of-age film.” True, yes: Writer-director Barry Jenkins, whose previous feature was “Medicine for Melancholy,” has adapted an unproduced, semiautobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney titled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” The boy in question, played on screen by three actors at different phases of one young, searching lifetime, copes with being bullied for his apparent homosexuality, which he keeps locked away from nearly everyone, including himself.
Chiron, played in the first of three segments by Alex Hibbert, grows up in his Miami neighborhood in the 1980s. His mother (Naomie Harris, riveting as a loving, hostile paradox of a wreck) has fallen into crack cocaine and a wobbly, sometime relationship with her son, known as “Little.”
Her disarmingly sweet-natured drug dealer (Mahershala Ali, stunningly good) presents Little with his first serious moral dilemma: Can I trust this man, he wonders, who has become the key role model in the fatherless boy’s life? Along with the dealer’s live-in girlfriend (Janelle Monae), he offers the boy some solace, a hot meal and, in a key early scene, a trip to the beach that stays with Little long afterward.
Little becomes Chiron in segment two, played by the superb young actor Ashton Sanders, and his mother is now pretty far gone. School has become hellish, and in one especially grueling sequence, Chiron’s one steady childhood friend, Kevin, reluctantly joins a group of abusive bullies in a terrible beating. This comes not long after Chiron and Kevin share a clandestine sexual encounter at the beach one night.
How Chiron responds to all of this points “Moonlight” to its third and final act. Now Chiron has become “Black,” played by Trevante Rhodes. A call out of the blue from Kevin, played in part three by the fabulous Andre Holland of “The Knick,” reunites these two men at the diner where Kevin works as a short-order cook. Their extended, nearly real-time conversation, photographed by James Laxton in some of the most supple digital imagery I’ve seen in an American movie, would be reason enough to champion Jenkins’ film.
So already I’m concerned. I’m concerned the hype surrounding “Moonlight” will crush it and lead audiences to expect a bigger, louder, more melodramatic sort of experience. The style resists all that. At the Toronto festival, Jenkins told the audience he wanted the opposite of a “gritty, miserablist” approach. It’s more like a dream, but Jenkins’ instincts (inspired by a rich variety of films and filmmakers, European and Asian in origin, from Hou Hsiao-Hsien to Claire Denis) bring this triptych to life, leaving us with a plaintive, perfect final shot of a man who has found a measure of peace at last.
I could add something about the musical score by Nicholas Britell, as delicate and evocative as the best of the film’s images. I could add a few other things, but I’ll just suggest you see what you think of it, and be glad that movies as strong as “Moonlight” (and the forthcoming “La La Land” and “Manchester by the Sea,” to name two of my other favorites so far this year) got made in the first place.