You might say “Moonlight” is this year’s “Boyhood.” Like Richard Linklater’s best picture nominee, the drama follows a sensitive kid on his journey toward maturity, with a simple but loose narrative that’s intensely moving.
But unlike “Boyhood,” the main character isn’t one audiences are used to seeing. Chiron is black, poor and confused about his sexuality in a neighborhood where macho swagger is necessary for survival.
That might sound niche, but “Moonlight” isn’t. It casts a wide net with sweeping themes. That’s why it’s making even hardened critics euphoric and, during its very limited opening weekend in New York and Los Angeles, before debuting in Washington on Friday, it brought in more than $400,000 — an astounding number from just four theaters. It does what all coming-of-age movies have to do: take a well-worn archetype and make it its own, finding universal in the specific.
“It does speak to so many people, and everyone who watches the film leaves feeling like there was a part of them in it,” said actor Trevante Rhodes, who plays Chiron as an adult.
The movie unfolds in three acts during distinct periods in Chiron’s life — as a young boy, a teen and an adult — and the themes ripple out, giving viewers plenty to relate to: the loneliness of adolescence; the stifling reality of bullying; the labels that society slaps on people who don’t conform; the presumptions about what makes a man a man; and the confusing process of discovering one’s true self.
For a moment, it’s a revenge tale. But, at its core, it’s something even more familiar.
“It’s a love story,” said actor André Holland, who plays the adult version of Chiron’s longtime friend Kevin. “I think it’s easy to put it in a box of, oh, it’s a black film or a black, gay film about these poor kids, but really, at the center of it, it’s a love story, and I love that people can see past all that stuff on the exterior.”
“Moonlight” isn’t a revolutionary movie. It’s a fairly typical coming-of-age story, featuring scenes movie fans know well, like schoolyard beatdowns and first sexual encounters, kind mentors and deadbeat parents. There are echoes, not just of “Boyhood,” but “Blue Is the Warmest Color,” “The 400 Blows,” “Boyz N the Hood” and “Splendor in the Grass” — some of the best dramatic representations of growing up. But “Moonlight” still keeps viewers guessing, subverting expectations at every turn.
MacArthur “genius” Tarell Alvin McCraney, whose somewhat autobiographical play was adapted into the film, says it’s important to always stay just ahead of the viewer. He teaches a class on playwriting, and he warns his students that most stories have already been told — and that’s okay.
“We tell the same stories over and over again because they help us know who we are, and that’s universal,” he said. “But when you tell a story, what’s most important is you have to bring your full self, because your DNA is the only time it’s happened in this world.”
“Moonlight” is poised to make screenwriter-director Barry Jenkins a household name, not to mention a major awards contender. This is only his second feature after 2008’s charming romantic dramedy “Medicine for Melancholy,” yet his sophomore effort is exquisitely composed, complete with stunning cinematography and an evocative score that’s heavy on the strings.
It had to be perfect because it was so personal. He and McCraney didn’t know each other as children, but they grew up in the same poor Miami neighborhood where the movie takes place, and both had mothers who were addicted to crack. Likewise, Chiron’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is a user.
Already, the story threatens to become a cliche. That’s what nearly scared off Harris. The British actress made a pact with herself long ago that she would only take roles showing black women in a positive light. There were enough stereotypes on-screen without her participation, she reasoned.
“The reason I changed my mind was Barry spoke to me and said, ‘This is my story, and my story necessarily involves that my mother was addicted to crack,’ ” Harris recalled. “I thought, ‘Here for the first time is someone who’s invested in ensuring that this character is portrayed with her full complexity and her full humanity.’ ”
Harris, like many people associated with the movie, is quickly becoming part of the Academy Awards conversation and making another #OscarsSoWhite controversy look increasingly unlikely. Another acting standout is Mahershala Ali.
According to McCraney and Jenkins, Ali’s character is the one that most fascinates audiences. He’s a drug dealer named Juan, who’s thoughtful and wise and, for a while, becomes Chiron’s father figure and protector. He also happens to be the person who feeds Paula’s addiction.
“What’s a faggot?” a sad-eyed Chiron (played as a young child by Alex Hibbert) quietly asks Juan during dinner one night. Juan takes his time responding, explaining that it’s a word used to make gay people feel bad about themselves — and that there’s nothing wrong with being gay. “How do I know?” Chiron follows up mournfully.
“You just do,” Juan tells him. “You don’t gotta know right now. Not yet.”
The first time Juan and Chiron meet, the little boy is hiding from bullies inside a boarded-up drug den. Juan rips the plywood off the window and steps inside the apartment, and for a moment, the viewer doesn’t know if he’s trustworthy. Moments earlier, after all, he was doing illegal business.
Juan is a complex character who keeps audiences guessing, but he wasn’t invented with the sole purpose of humanizing a drug dealer — he was based on a real person, the man who taught McCraney to ride a bike when he was young.
“It isn’t our intention to play with those expectations or flip them on their head,” Jenkins said. “We’re just trying to do justice to the character Tarell created, who was modeled after a flesh-and-blood person who, yes, would defy expectations.”
That’s part of what makes “Moonlight” so broadly appealing. None of it feels manufactured or stilted.
The success of the movie seems fated at this point. And it serves as yet another helpful reminder that inclusivity is good for the industry. People are drawn to human stories, regardless of whether the people on-screen look the same as the audience.
“That’s what makes it such a treasure,” Harris said. “It strips away all the labels that society attaches to us or we attach to ourselves, and it says fundamentally we’re all grappling with the same issues and we’re all in search of the same thing, which is love.”