Lawrence Toppman

‘Moonlight’ illuminates a subtle coming-of-age story

A drug dealer in Miami (Mahershala Ali) takes a paternal interest in a fatherless young man (Alex Hibbert) in “Moonlight.”
A drug dealer in Miami (Mahershala Ali) takes a paternal interest in a fatherless young man (Alex Hibbert) in “Moonlight.” Courtesy of A24 Pictures

To claim that “Moonlight” is an authentic movie, you’d need to be gay, black, a child of the 1980s with one parent – one incapable of raising you alone – and, perhaps, a product of a hardscrabble neighborhood in Miami.

I am none of those things and can’t speak about its validity. But it may cast a spell on anyone who has known loneliness, exclusion, feelings of inferiority or a desire to be encased in a hard shell to protect a soft interior.

Chiron (pronounced Shy-RONE) develops that carapace over about 20 years in the course of this movie. (He shares his name with the gentle centaur in Greek mythology who didn’t fit in with his own kind or with humans, though he interacted with both.)

We meet him as a boy nicknamed “Little” (Alex Hibbert), who runs from bullies at his school into the arms of Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Teresa (singer Janelle Monáe). Little has a mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), who spends her time high on the hard drugs Juan sells.

By high school, Little has morphed into the shy, sensitive Chiron (expressive Ashton Sanders), who suspects he’s gay and tentatively reaches out to best friend Kevin. They have a tender encounter on a beach, but Kevin humiliates him in front of the school to prove his own toughness.

In the third segment, Chiron is known as Black (Trevante Rhodes). Black has grown up to be the only mentor he knew, a drug dealer with a do-rag, musclebound body and hooded eyes that give nothing away. One night, the adult Kevin (André Holland) phones him out of the blue, and Black decides to pay his old friend a surprise visit.

Writer-director Barry Jenkins adapted a screen story by Tarell McCraney, who in turn adapted his own play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” The story’s structured like a three-act drama: In each act, the protagonist meets a person who helps him discover who he is and accepts him on that basis.

The filmmakers confront preconceptions. The unexpectedly sympathetic Juan takes the boy swimming, offers paternal advice and tells him “faggot” is an ugly word used to bring gay people pain. Yet he doesn’t plan to stop selling drugs to Paula, however addled she becomes. When Juan disappears unexplainedly from the picture after part one, he leaves a gap.

Chiron begins to seem like a victim in high school, yet he shows surprising strength of purpose. An act that liberates him brings harsh consequences, leading to a third segment that doesn’t end the way we expect. That ending’s just right in retrospect, providing an emotional closure if not a narrative one.

I can’t remember a single scene shot from anyone’s point of view except Chiron’s. We often feel we’re in a dream: We see this young boy bob in the waves, briefly free of care, or watch a basketball game played in slow motion to sacred music by Mozart. (Cinematographer James Laxton also shot Jenkins’ other feature, the little-seen “Medicine for Melancholy,” in 2008.)

The three central performances blend seamlessly: You can find the eternal wariness of Little and the suppressed longings of Chiron in the face of Black, as he searches for something more meaningful than the day’s take on the streets. You don’t have to be gay or black to understand why that search matters.

Toppman: 704-358-5232



Cast: Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Alex Hibbert, André Holland, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe.

Writer-director: Barry Jenkins.

Length: 110 minutes.

Rating: R (some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout).