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There’s a sincerity to Moonlight that is hard to shake once it’s over, a film of uncompromising love for it characters and the story it wants to tell, one that challenges us to look beyond its themes and search within ourselves about who we are and what paths we have taken. In a season filled with tremendous cinema, competing against some of the best films in years, Moonlight deserves its high praise and a second look.
Having already reviewed the movie, the second viewing proves to be an even more enriching experience, able to more deeply take in the accomplishments of writer/director Barry Jenkins and his gentle, heartbreaking story, but also to better appreciate the work of his actors, including the haunting performance of Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali.
Briefly, the story follows the coming-of-age of a boy named Chiron, who we see pass through three significant stages in his life, each segmented like chapters that reveal the influences and impact of the previous. From a small boy on the run from predatory peers, to high school where he makes a discovery about his sexuality, to manhood, filled by haunts of his youth. It’s a striking odyssey of profound emotional affect, deeply authentic and painfully honest. And like every movie, it has one great moment.
Ali plays Juan, a Cuban drug dealer who finds young Chiron (played at this age by Alex Hibbert) hiding in a ramshackle apartment complex from kids his age bullying him, a routine that has emotionally wounded the boy. What we know about Chiron is that he lives with his disturbed mother, a wreck of a woman named Paula (Naomie Harris), abusive and neglectful, she is typically strung out on drugs.
Juan takes Chiron back to his place, a clean, middle-class home shared with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), where they feed him and let him sleep the night before taking him back to his mother. In the days and weeks to follow, he and Juan spend time to together and bond, with the older man teaching the younger about how to stand on his own in a world that strives to break those who try hardest. He teaches Chiron how to swim and guides him like a son of his own.
And so it is, that Juan becomes angered when he spots Paula smoking crack cocaine, though she bitterly accosts him for being the one that sells it to her, a cycle that leaves both to blame. It’s a truth that will devastate both, but for this moment, especially Juan.
Chiron ends up back at Juan’s home again, the weight of being him nearly unbearable, the internal scars of ridicule from classmates to the savagery of his mother’s vitriol at life, his only escape is under the roof of the one man who shows him the only decency he’s ever known. Yet there is something a little different about Chiron this time, his own burden pressing as things become clear.
They sit at the table, Chiron, Juan and Teresa and Chiron has questions about some words he’s heard thrown at him, curious about what they mean and if they are true about him. Juan doesn’t lie. He answers the questions and talks to the boy as if the child deserves the truth, not just because he does, but because he cares for Chiron and wants to make it right. It’s a compelling setup.
Still, Chiron is despondent but he’s not unaware, and things are dawning. They talk about his mother, about feelings of hate and regret. And at last, Chiron asks about drugs, and if Juan is in fact, a dealer. There is an aching pause in Juan’s response as he lets the question burrow, and when Chiron makes the connection that his mom does drugs, and that it must be Juan who sells them to her, he gets up from the table and moves off screen where he exits the house, leaving Juan in self-reflection, head bowed in shame as Teresa reaches for his hand. He’s lost the boy.
What’s remarkable about this moment, and what is universal about the film really, is its presentation of bold truths told in such magnificent reduction. The scene is nearly dialogue-free, and yet, every word that is spoken hangs in the air with impressive bittersweet release, giving this conversation thunderous effect despite its near silent delivery.
Some films would take a moment like this, one of great discovery for Chiron, and fill it with conflict, loud, vocal exchanges, and melodrama, layered with an orchestral score to manipulate further, and perhaps in the right hands, that could work, which is what makes what Jenkins does here all the more commanding. With all but the barest of words and action, stripped down to its most raw, the moment hinges on its idle performances and for that, it greatly succeeds.
Both Hibbert and Ali are mesmerizing, but Ali is a wonder, playing a man bound and trapped by a lifestyle that serves him well but cripples the neighborhood he lives in. His a proud man, but he is a not a lawful one, and so it is that caring for Chiron has become his search for absolution, his personal act of clemency in his own mind to let his indiscretions suffer under the light of his mercy.
Of course, that is a fallacy, one he knows is so, and when Chiron calls him on his role in his own fate, Juan realizes that while he might be the one giving the boy his only moments of joy, but they are tainted by the fact he is the one responsible for putting him in darkness from the start. As he bows his head, and Jenkins lets that image of Juan linger for several long seconds, we understand how deep the pain runs. When it fades to black, it haunts us all. It’s a great cinema moment.