Have you heard about “Moonlight”?
Having made triumphant bows at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, as well as commercial theaters in New York and Los Angeles, it’s the best-reviewed film of the year so far, hovering at around 99 percent on Metacritic.
Now that it’s arriving in theaters throughout the rest of the country, viewers can finally see what all the fuss is about. And they will see a perfect film, one that exemplifies not only the formal and aesthetic capabilities of a medium at its most visually rich, but a capacity for empathy and compassion that reminds audiences of one of the chief reasons why we go to movies: to be moved, opened up and maybe permanently changed.
Adding to its achievement, “Moonlight” accomplishes all of this without a trace of bombast or showy self-congratulation. Adapting a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, writer-director Barry Jenkins has crafted a deceptively simple story in which the protagonist, Chiron, comes of age in the Liberty City neighborhood of Miami. Although Chiron faces the familiar hardships of his environment — poverty, drugs, crime and dispossession — Jenkins often turns those obstacles on their heads, seeing them through a far more complex lens than the usual one of dysfunction and despair. And Chiron emerges as the most touching exemplar of the film’s nuanced perspective, as he grapples with the layers of his own identity as an African American man who happens to be gay.
“Moonlight” begins when Chiron is a 9-year-old boy and being bullied by neighborhood kids for being “soft.” The film, which is organized in three separate chapters, will catch up with him as a teenager and, finally, a grown man. Played as a child by Alex Hibbert, Chiron is shy and guarded, the son of a loving mother (Naomie Harris) battling an addiction to drugs. When Chiron comes under the care of the neighborhood dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), the contradictions that animate “Moonlight” come starkly into play: Chiron receives nurturing and acceptance from Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (singer Janelle Monáe). In fact their home provides a genuinely safe and healthy respite from the danger and uncertainty all around him. What to make of the fact that Juan either directly or indirectly contributes to his young charge’s distress, Jenkins leaves to the viewer.
The contradictions continue in “Moonlight’s” next two chapters, which focus on Chiron’s relationship with his best friend Kevin, and his attempts to come to grips with feelings he can barely articulate, let alone act on. Played by Ashton Sanders as a teenager and Trevante Rhodes as an adult — and with Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland playing Kevin in each chapter — Chiron morphs from reticent and watchful to shut down, his state of suspended animation only interrupted by an unexpected encounter that brims with warmth, redemption and fragile hope.
Directed with superb control and insight by Jenkins, “Moonlight” achieves the near-impossible in film, which is to ground its story and characters in a place and time of granular specificity and simultaneously make them immediately relatable and universal. Miami natives will instantly recognize the lush tropical palette, balmy atmosphere and distinctive “chopped and screwed” music of the city. The film is a study in sensuous pleasure, its sounds and colors pulsing with vivid, saturated life. Carefully framing his characters in wide open shots, the filmmaker allows the environment to speak as eloquently as the people — who, especially in Chiron’s case, seem both trapped and painfully isolated.
“Who is you, Chiron?” asks a character at one point. The answer is most elusive to Chiron himself. In fact, “Moonlight” is so sobering, even excruciating, as it bears witness to his search for identity that it’s difficult to convey the particular kind of joy it possesses. That’s mostly because of the sensitivity and measured optimism with which Jenkins observes his characters, and performances that manage to find sympathy and human dignity in people at their best and most poisonous alike. As Juan, Ali, seen most recently playing the villain in the “Luke Cage” series on Netflix, finally receives the breakout role he’s long deserved, as does Harris as Chiron’s troubled mother. For her part, Monáe delivers an impressive acting debut in a role that could have been slightly enlarged, if only to keep her on-screen a bit longer.
The central core of “Moonlight,” of course, is formed by the six actors who play Chiron and Kevin at various stages of their lives. They are the beating heart of a film that, in its knockout of a final sequence, turns out to be all heart, all the time. “Moonlight” is the kind of movie that can find as much to value in the tangle of arms and legs of boys fighting as it does in the baptism of a man teaching a boy to swim, the swoon of a first kiss on a nighttime beach, the spiritual communion of feeding and being fed. As wrenching as “Moonlight” can be during the most cruel, violent and self-defeating moments of Chiron’s journey, as a bold, inspiring example of poetic-humanist cinema it’s almost an ecstatic experience.
“It’s all love, in this house,” Monáe’s character says at one point. The same can be said for a film of exceptional tenderness, beauty and soul.
R. At area theaters. Contains sexuality, drug use, brief violence and obscenity.