★ ★ ★ ★
“Moonlight” is a film about a young man trying to find a place for himself in the world. “At some point you got to decide who you going to be,” says an early mentor. “Can't let anybody make that decision for you.” Director Barry Jenkins splits the story into thirds, each examining a different time in the life of Chiron, a young, gay African-American man, as he comes to grips with who he is.
At the beginning of Part I Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is ten-years-old and on the run from schoolyard bullies. His small size and meek manner have made him a target. He finds refuge in an abandoned drug den where Juan (Mahershala Ali), an anything-but-stereotypical drug dealer with a heart of gold, discovers the boy cowering in a corner. The older man becomes a mentor and surrogate father, even as he sells crack to Chiron’s mother, nurse Paula (Naomie Harris).
Part II sees Chiron’s (now plyed by Ashton Sanders) high school years marred by homophobic slurs and the bullying that comes along with the name-calling. His mother has fallen deep into addiction but Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), picks up the slack, offering a kind face, a warm meal and a clean place to sleep. The introverted teen’s first sexual experience, with his childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), does little to take the edge off the loneliness he feels even when he is with other people.
Part III focuses on Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) as a gold-grill wearing drug dealing twenty-something, pumped up but still alone. A random phone call from Kevin (Andre Holland) gives the estranged friends a chance to catch up and confront the past.
“Moonlight” is a movie that beats with a very human heart while subverting expectations with almost every scene. Jenkins has placed obstacles in the way of the story telling—multiple actors playing the same characters, and a lead who is succinct almost to the point of being mute—but overcomes those hurdles with a combination of social conscience, fine acting and interesting characters who constantly defy pigeonholing.
Mahershala Ali, an actor best known as Remy Danton on “House of Cards,” is a standout as a drug dealer who allows the personal cost of his business to weigh on him. He’s a tough guy with a heart and his performance in Part I sets a high bar which is met by Harris and all three of the young men who play Chiron.
Each deliver performances characterized by deep inner work that reveals the truth behind the façade Chiron uses as a front. There’s a remarkable consistency in the trio of performances, so by the end of the film, when Chiron is asked, “Who is you man?” his answer, “I'm me. I don't try to be nothing else,” rings true and real.