Barry Jenkins’ beautiful “Moonlight” seems to have more in common with poetry than with a typical narrative film. It’s less a story than a collection of moments, leaving viewers feeling moved and changed, as if they’ve spent time in someone else’s dreams and woke up understanding who they are.
Based on a work by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (its first incarnation was lyrically titled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”), it’s a three-act drama unfolding over two decades, in which a gay black man comes of age in a tough Miami neighborhood.
We first meet Chiron as a 10-year-old nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert); the action then moves forward to Chiron as a teen (Ashton Sanders), and finally as an adult, whose street name is Black (Trevante Rhodes). The child Chiron is wide-eyed and mostly silent; he wonders why he feels the way he does about other boys, and why his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) doesn’t seem to love him. That boy vanishes into the teen, bullied at school but beginning to know what he wants, then flows into the man who still, as an old friend tells him, “can’t say more than three words at a time.”
Jenkins lets the camera linger on quiet moments — a moonlit beach; a night street wet with summer rain; a head resting on a shoulder as if it’s come home — and layers on a dreamlike score (by Nicholas Britell) that seems to encompass every emotion we see on screen, from plangent strings to operatic arias to hip-hop.
His actors, none of whom get much screen time, create indelible portraits. Mahershala Ali is riveting as a drug dealer who briefly becomes a kindly father figure for Little (there’s a lovely scene when the two go swimming, photographed like a baptism). And Harris, miles from her sleek Moneypenny in the James Bond franchise, shows us her character’s entire life in just a handful of brief scenes: hope, despair, regret, loss and, finally, in a voice old before her time, a long-awaited declaration of love. That’s what “Moonlight,” ultimately, is about: finding your voice, however quiet; finding pain; and, against all odds, finding love.
Rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout. 1:51. Hamburg, Kentucky.