SCREEN GRABS In 2008, the SF International Film Festival premiered then-local resident Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy, a stylish surprise in which a one-night-stand between two attractive young African-American people — he a Tenderloin-dwelling artist (Wyatt Cenac), she an upscaling Marina resident (Tracey Heggins) playing hooky from her live-in white boyfriend — spills over into a next day of city rambling. Before their bittersweet parting, the two leads discussed various matters of racial and cultural identity (including gentrification), while Jenkins likewise played around with the expectations of “black cinema.”
Medicine had its “gritty,” realistically “urban” aspects, but stylistically it was playful — not playful like Dope, say, but playful like Breathless or Shoot the Piano Player, right down to its near-monochrome imagery, unexpected editing, and musical choices. If it seemed ultimately a little light on substance, it was more than aesthetically assured and charming enough to constitute an auspicious debut. (It was also instantly a sort of cult classic for many viewers, despite a very modest theatrical release.) Just what Jenkins would do next was anyone’s guess. Would he remain just a deft miniaturist, even on budgets inevitably larger than his first feature’s teensy $13,000?
Well, it took a little too long to find out, but it turns out the answers to those questions exceed just about anyone’s wildest expectations. Moonlight, Jenkins’ second feature (he made some shorts in between), offers not just further, expanded proof of his precocious stylistic mastery. It’s also one of year’s most substantive and emotionally nuanced films, not to mention that rare U.S. feature you can call “exhilarating” for its sheer artistry.
Though loosely derived from a stage play by co-scenarist Tarell Alvin McCraney), the movie could hardly be more cinematic from the very start, when a series of traveling shots introduces the starting freshness with which James Laxton’s widescreen cinematography reveals verbally little-articulated human relationship dynamics in spatial terms. The d.p. and Jenkins do a particularly masterful job using imagery, editing, and sound to heighten the constant tension of being bullied, when every public environment is potentially a dangerous one.
In a bleak lower-class Miami neighborhood, cocksure Juan (a terrifically charismatic Mahershala Ali, from House of Cards) oversees his drug-dealing operation, running an obviously tight ship. Yet he proves surprisingly tender-hearted when he discovers 9-year-old Chiron aka “Little” (Alex Hibbert) cowering in an empty crack-den apartment, where he’s hidden from his schoolyard tormentors. At first reluctant to even speak, the boy doesn’t want to go home — for reasons we will soon discover — and is taken in for the night by Juan and his warmly maternal girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). The two adults certainly provide better parenting models than Chiron’s actual mother Paula (Naomie Harris), an unstable woman with a barely-hidden, variably serious drug habit. With no biological father in sight, “Little” thirsts for the male mentorship that Juan finds himself willing to provide.
At a certain point Moonlight leaps forward to find the now 16-year-old Chiron’s (Ashton Sanders) circumstances have considerably worsened. His mother is completely out of control, and at school he’s terrorized by a particularly vicious, gay-baiting classmate. His only friend is braggadocious yet loyal Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), though even that tie is imperiled by the harsh rules of teenage social hierarchy.
The film’s final segment jumps ahead another decade or so. Now calling himself “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), Chiron has thoroughly reinvented himself as protection against the brutal experiences of his formative years. But an unexpected phone call reveals a chink in his rock-hard armor, leading to a reunion that provides one of the most poignantly yearning sequences on screen in years.
In a way, Moonlight is an African-American equivalent to Boyhood, even if here different actors are used to portray the young leads at different ages, rather than the film itself being shot over many years’ course. But in Richard Linklater’s film, the rather bland protagonist suffered from the poor decisions of adults around him (most notably mother Patricia Arquette’s bad taste in men), yet the basic security of his middle-class, college-bound lifestyle was never really at risk. Moonlight’s Chiron, by contrast, is in much more desperate straits from an early age. Not only does he have to negotiate his way through a minefield of potentially abusive peers and a crime-riddled milieu, but his own mother’s severe problems put him frequently at risk of going hungry and homeless.
It’s a tribute to Jenkins’ subtlety that this, too, feels like a boy’s-own-story at once distinctive and relatably unremarkable. There’s no overt case-pleading or sensationalism here, unlike in something like Lee Daniels’ Precious, a strong movie whose not dissimilar worst-scenario youth story nonetheless plays as grotesquely exceptional. While there’s nothing remotely sexually explicit here, it will be interesting to see the extent to which Moonlight is embraced by non-gay audiences, as its pro-tolerance (and anti-homophobia) message could hardly be clearer.
It delivers something perhaps even more challenging to straight audiences than depiction of queer physical sexuality: A painfully vivid sense of romantic love and longing between men, particularly men who cannot in any way be dismissed as gay stereotypes.
The director and co-writer work in many salient points about masculinity, and how ultimately soul-destroying its rigid definitions that can be for everyone, no matter their gender or preference. With the much-ballyhoo’d Birth of a Nation now well out of major awards contention due to filmmaker scandal and a tepid public reception, Moonlight is (alongside imminent interracial-marriage period piece Loving) likely to be the feature this year that will carry African-American talent and themes all the way to the Oscars, generating discussion into the spring and beyond.
Jenkins gets superb performances that are all the more impressive given the relative paucity of dialogue, let alone frank verbal expression of emotions in a deliberately close-mouthed script. But much of what makes Moonlight seem so original lies not in the realms of character or narrative content, but how they’re presented. Not least of the film’s many inventive aesthetic pleasures is its soundtrack, in which every diverse musical choice seems both boldly unexpected and emotionally dead-on.
Moonlight is playing in Bay Area Theaters.