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Friday, Dec. 2, 2016 03:01 pm

Powerful "Moonlight" a Timely Tale of Lost Youth

Riding a wave of positive buzz provided by the many film festivals where it was greeted with numerous accolades, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight arrives in theaters with the onus of not only having to live up to the hype but also breaking a losing streak where independent features are concerned.  Thankfully, the movie delivers all we’ve been led to believe it would, and while it may not set the world on fire at the box office, the many Oscar nominations and other awards that will surely come its way will hopefully heighten interest in the film.

Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches Little (Alex Hibbert) how to float in Moonlight.
Courtesy A24 Pictures.

Made up of three distinct acts, the movie follows the development of a young African-American homosexual boy living in an impoverished section of Miami.  Each section features a different actor in the role, with the character referred to by a different name in each to note how his identity changes over time.  On the surface, this seems to be a expedient casting decision but this approach reaps great dividends as each actor brings nuances all their own that are unique to the character as they play him which ultimately contributes to a complete, well-rounded characterization.

Act I focuses on Little (Alex Hibbert), an introverted young boy whose single mother (an excellent Naomie Harris) is fighting a losing battle with drugs, often leaving her son to fend for himself.  Often bullied, the boy eventually crosses paths with Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who briefly takes him under his wing.  Act II moves on to Little’s high school years, where he goes by his given name Chiron (Ashton Sanders).  Wrestling with his sexuality, the young man is still the subject of horrific bullying though he seemingly finds an ally in Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who provides a shoulder for Chiron to lean on, as shares with him his first sexual encounter.  Act III finds Chiron as Black (Trevante Rhodes), who has followed in Juan’s footsteps by pushing drugs on the streets where he lives.  Aimless and without direction, a phone call from Kevin (Andre Holland) ten years after their last encounter may offer a sense of salvation he so desperately needs.

Black (Trevante Rhodes) reconnects with an old friend in Moonlight.
Courtesy A24 Pictures.

There’s a degree of quiet about the film that speaks to the character’s isolation, while Jenkins employs close shots of his three leads which has the same effect.  While the approach may not be one that screams to the heavens, the message the movie contains surely does. 

More than any other film in recent memory, Moonlight speaks to the plight of young black men trapped by a lack of economic opportunity, unwarranted suspicion and unstable homes. While Little’s quest is to find his own identity, it’s a search that remains unresolved at the end.  It’s no surprise that his moniker changes throughout, as he remains unsure of who he is and where he belongs.  Jenkins’ final shot is a haunting one as it simply and effectively drives home the sense of limbo Little and so many like him are suspended in today. If he will ever find his footing remains in question, though the director does provide him with a piece of well-earned, genuine hope.

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