Director: Barry Jenkins
Stars: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland
4 (out of 5) Globes
Woe to the film dubbed “important.” Granted, breathless praise isn’t a big deal for Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight”; it can bear the burden of untold accolades. It arrives as a toast of the film festival circuit, hitting a marketplace hopefully ready to receive an empathetic, incisive state of black America. It could be something, like Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” you want to forcefeed Trump supporters who’ve been strapped to a chair, “Clockwork Orange”-style. Still, even they might notice, if they look close enough through clamped-open eyes, that it’s not the message, such that there’s a simple one, that makes “Moonlight” great. It’s the human factor, the messiness and visual beauty, that push it over.
It’s a movie that wants to break free of its own constraints, about a hero who wishes he could do the same. His name is Chiron, and we see him over three different periods, played by three different actors. Raised in the rough Liberty City section of Miami, he morphs from a shy kid (played by Alex Hibbert) into a bullied teen (Ashton Sanders) and, finally, into a hard, grill’d-up adult (Trevante Rhodes). Each narrative leap is a cosmic shock, each transformation a heartbreaker. This, we can understand, is what happens to someone boxed in by society for being black, male and, though he doesn’t always know it, gay. By the time he’s become a ripped drug dealer with a gun shoved into his belt, we’re primed to expect the worst. He’ll be another statistic: a black youth who couldn’t veer from the grim path fate and society had paved for him from his birth.
But what happens next is magical. The Rhodes iteration of Chiron whimsically reunites with Kevin, the closest thing he ever had to a friend, and a lover. Now played by “The Knick”’s magnetic, assured André Holland, the latter’s an ex-con who’s cleaned himself up, turning to a modest living as a cook in a sparsely-attended restaurant. He’s happy; Chiron is not. As the two sit down for a meal Kevin cooked, the scene keeps going, and going, and going. It feeds off of the tension of what we think will happen — something grim and art house and message-y — versus what is happening, which is a complicated tete-a-tete, uneasy one moment, disarmingly loose the next. Maybe this will become another “Carol”: a sad movie with a happy ending.