The first scene of Moonlight is done in a single take: we watch as a drug dealer named Juan (played by Mahershala Ali) oversees his operation and checks in, mentor-like, with a young protégé, who is furiously working the streets. This sequence is filmed in a handheld, old school manner that recalls when doing these sorts of shots were difficult, intricately organized stunts that couldn’t be done with CGI. It’s the first indication that the film we’re watching is something truly special.
The best thing a movie can do is present the viewer with something new. After the first few minutes, I assumed I knew where the Florida-set Moonlight was going and that I had seen a version of it before. The character of Juan immediately reminded me of Delroy Lindo’s amazing performance as a neighborhood “father figure” in Spike Lee’s 1995 masterpiece Clockers. The set up seemed to indicate this was another slice of life movie about growing up in “the hood,” as dozens of great, early 1990s movies had captured previously. Actually, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, one of the great movie discoveries of 2016, goes places I’ve never seen before and presents its impactful story in a bold new way.
Juan discovers a little boy hiding by himself. The kid, who identifies himself as “Little” (played by Alex R. Hibbert) doesn’t say much but doesn’t want to go home. Juan is moved by the boy’s inner strength and immediately takes to him. Their relationship becomes a tight, father/son dynamic, in which Juan instills Little with a newfound encouragement. We also discover why Little is so afraid of his mother (a devastating Naomi Harris) and that the boy carries a big secret.
The story is told in three acts, each marked by Little’s growth into a man. We meet up with him as a teenager (played by Ashton Sanders and identified as “Chiron”) and as an adult in a very different stage of his life (played by Trevante Rhodes and referred to as “Black”). This brief synopsis does nothing to describe the way Jenkins shapes his story, as a series of memories that range from painful to rapturous.
Movies depicting a “gangsta” lifestyle dependably have a lot of hip-hop music on the soundtrack but not this one. Instead, Moonlight uses a great deal of instrumental, classical-sounding music, creating a universal, richly felt mood. The scene where Juan teaches Little how to swim is especially moving, as the imagery and music create a richly observed, seemingly organic moment.
Moonlight presents a journey unfamiliar to me and to cinema in general, that of a shy, timid, gay African-American man who struggles with his identity while growing up in a bad neighborhood. There are moments that lean towards melodrama but nothing here is presented in a preachy, politically charged or remotely message-driven way.
Everyone in the cast gives a superb, layered performance. Ali makes Juan a complex, surprisingly tender man whose profession says nothing about the good person he’s trying to be. Hibbert never hits a false note as Little, Sanders is devastating playing the character as a taunted high school student and Rhodes is unforgettable as a man at possibly the end or the beginning of his life.
The final act, in which Black reconnects with an old friend, is remarkably suspenseful, as nothing that occurs feels inevitable or motivated by screenplay convention. The only thing remotely Hollywood here is the familiar name of the film’s producer (some guy named Brad Pitt).
There is sadness in Little’s journey but also humor, insight and joy. Then there’s the final scene, which is a breathtaking in its poetry. Moonlight takes lots of chances and emerges a bold, beautiful work. Jenkins side-steps editorializing Little’s world and journey, and makes every scene an opportunity for discover and understanding.