4 out of 4 stars
By Bayard Lewis
Far removed from cozy neighborhoods and suburbs are the the lives of young blacks and minorities whose daily life is one of survival. Young Chiron is bullied at a young age and actor Alex R. Hibbert expresses more than words in the gaze of a boy who is seeking acceptance and love. His mother is a crack addict and his father is out of the picture.
Through the performances of three actors, we experience slices of Chiron’s life at 11, 17, and 25. During his coming of age, all three of these time periods express pivotal moments in his life: awareness of his sexuality, taking courage and standing up for himself, and finding healing in reconnecting with one of the only peers to treat him with dignity. While these are all tough challenges for a teen living in a rough neighborhood, they cross cultural boundaries, showing that the path to adulthood is riddled with insecurity, emotional highs and lows, and deep core needs as human beings.
At age 11 he’s befriended by a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) who welcomes the boy into his home and provides a sanctuary from his unhealthy life at home. The anguish of seeing his mother in a pattern of self-destruction is expressed deeply through the eyes of young Chiron. He says very few words, but through careful direction, he doesn’t really need to; his silence is more powerful than dialog.
Much of the film is painful to watch, especially as the teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is bloodied by one of his friends while standing up for himself. This friend was the one peer he was able to open up to and express his deepest feelings. Director Barry Jenkins creates intimate moments with characters where they are put in vulnerable positions, reflect on their condition, and try to create deep connection with friends and protectors.
The cinematography steeps us in Chiron’s world, getting close during moments of fear and fortitude, and using light as a sculpting tool when he is hiding in a crack hole from bullies, or about to have his first intimate contact. Cinematographer James Laxton has many credits to his name, but this is the first significant recognition for his work, and I expect we’ll see more beautiful, intimate camera work in future films that reach award-show status.
With a tiny $5 million budget by Hollywood standards, a new masterpiece of cultural cinema has been made, but one that crosses boundaries of race and sexual identity. “Moonlight” carries a deep sadness, but also a longing for hope that can transcend trauma and pain. It was nominated for 8 Oscars and won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.