5 Stars

Set over three periods of time, with three actors of different ages playing the same character, Moonlight is easily the strongest coming-of-age story to emerge in the last few years (and yes, that would include Boyhood).  Divided into three sections that each work well individually, Moonlight takes these three arcs and creates something that manages to be even more impactful when viewed as a whole.

Chiron, the boy who grows into a man over the course of Moonlight, is poor, black, and gay, growing up in housing projects in Miami. Young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) is a shy, quiet kid who is visibly uncomfortable in his own skin. He lives with his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), who tries in her own way to be a better parent even as she uses drugs with increasing frequency. One day during his childhood, he’s discovered in a vacant building by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who takes a liking to young Chiron. There’s no ulterior motive on Juan’s part, either – he and his girlfriend (Janelle Monáe) see a child in need of some stability and love.

In the film’s second act, the action jumps into high school, where Chiron (Ashton Sanders) deals with harassment from other kids in his school who target him for being different. But he also grows closer to Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), and their friendship comes to the edge of being something more. That is, until their connection is threatened by outside forces that question both boys’ respective displays of masculinity. Over a decade later, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has grown into adulthood by replicating the brightest example from his childhood – he’s turned in many ways into Juan, both in career choices and in physique. When someone from his past reconnects with him, though, the outer shell that Chiron has built up starts to come down, possibly giving Chiron a new way forward.

In adapting the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, writer/director Barry Jenkins has rearranged the structure of the story – in the play, the three arcs are intertwined, while Jenkins has separated each narrative into its own section of the film. It’s a smart choice that makes the audience connect the dots between scenes that connect over the different periods of time. Because each act takes place years apart from one another, things occur between each act that aren’t dwelled upon, making it clear that life has just moved on for these characters.The film is also smart in how it approaches the topics of sexuality, race and culture. They’re all dealt with in insightful ways, but it’s never at the expense of Chiron or any of the other characters around him. Moonlight frequently upends stereotypes that we’ve seen all too often, and these choices not only keep the film from being predictable, but they give it a heart that’s then frequently hit by the unexpected. As great as the story is, it’s also visually told in an impactful way. The visual language of the film is breathtakingly beautiful.

The cast assembled here is also uniformly excellent. Each actor playing Chiron does tremendous work, and even though they don’t resemble one another physically, they share a spirit that’s chilling in how it carries from one actor to another. Rhodes in particular gets the meatiest material, as his physically imposing body hardly resembles the scrawny kid and teenager we’ve seen before, but the fragile boy inside is all too apparent. They’re surrounded by a terrific supporting cast, including Ali’s incredibly warm take on Juan and Naomie Harris’ surprising journey over the film as Paula.

Moonlight is, hands-down, one of the best films to hit screens in recent memory. It’s a thought-provoking piece that has an unbelievable amount of heart. Its explorations of sexuality, race and masculinity are refreshing in their honesty. It’s an absolute must-see.

Moonlight • Rating: R (for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout) • Runtime: 110 minutes • Genre: Drama • Cast: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, AShton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Alex R. Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali • Director: Barry JEnkins • Writer: Barry Jenkins • Distributor: A24


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