The haunting human quest to belong, to accept others unconditionally and be accepted in return, is the bedrock foundation of limitless myths in countless forms. It’s the focus of Disney’s “Bambi,” as well as Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” artworks such as Rembrandt’s interpretation of the biblical parable “Return of the Prodigal Son” and ballads such as Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” We’re tribal animals at heart, and finding a place to fit in is a fable we can’t stop creating, viewing and listening to.
“Moonlight” presents that story along lines that are touching and disturbing, avoiding clichés, shattering stereotypes and succeeding from every angle. Writer/director Barry Jenkins presents timeless issues of kindness and sensuality, anxiety and tears, through a perspective that is entirely new. He has turned this commonplace theme into something extraordinary. It may appear to be about people very different from you sexually, spiritually and physically, but it is exactly about you. It’s about everyone.
The film is a tryptic portrait, three 40-minute chapters that episodically span 15 years in the life of a young man from a poor, predominantly black section of Miami. He’s called different nicknames, but his given name is Chiron. It’s not made an issue that he shares that name with a character from Greek mythology, the most intelligent and gifted half-horse man among the Centaurs, but it’s not a coincidence. He is not easy to classify. Like every other character here, he’s complex and challenging to identify.
What’s clear is that he’s sensitive and observant and struggling to define himself. We meet him as a vulnerable grade-schooler taunted with the nickname Little (Alex Hibbert). Trying to enter a world unprepared to accept him, Little finds it hard to have honest conversations with other kids or adults alike. Running from a pack of mocking bullies who want to thrash him for being weird, he hides in a long abandoned apartment. The frightened, silent boy is found and informally adopted by the intimidating looking but kindly Juan (Mahershala Ali). Little’s rescuer is the neighborhood drug lord, yet his caring attention is much richer than his crack-addicted mother Paula’s (a horrible — and wonderful — Naomie Harris). Juan is the grown-up Little trusts enough to ask about what it means to be gay.
As a tall, rangy high school teenager (played by Ashton Sanders), he still keeps personal secrets. He locks down his own rising physical power, and quietly explores his deeper understanding of his own sexuality, parallel choices that lead to a deep, conflicted relationship with a childhood friend.
When we meet him years later as a man (played by Trevante Rhodes), he is calling himself Black. He has trained himself to become as physically imposing as his father figure Juan, but it’s a sham identity. He shrinks inward with downcast eyes, carrying heavy emotional baggage and a lifelong wish for intimacy. The gift of togetherness that appears in the final scene is the sort of tenderness movies rarely achieve.
Jenkins’ filmmaking is simple, poetic and strikingly effective. With stylish restraint, he avoids surplus dialogue, employing a lyrical soundtrack (ranging from classical to Jamaican and Latin hits) and vivid camera work to convey more than excess conversation could. He allows us to linger on telling glances among the cast, all bringing exceptional levels of compassion, sensitivity and empathy to characters almost never represented in cinema. With its recurring baptismal imagery of Chiron being submerged in water, the film is a coming-of-age story about a character repeatedly reborn. He may appear new each time he bobs up to the surface, but deeper inside his story is universal.