The black child they call “little” is the one the other kids beat up and bully.
He’s shy and quiet. His eyes spend most of their time pointed at the ground. He has the look of a beaten dog punished one time too many.
By chance, one day’s after-school bullying hurls him into an abandoned apartment, a “dope hole” where he hides. That’s where Juan (Mahershala Ali of “Free State of Jones” and “House of Cards”) finds little (Alex R. Hibbert).
Juan is empathetic, reassuring. But we know he’s a drug dealer by the pimped Chevy he drives and the street corners he frequents. Is he recruiting the kid, or about to prey upon him?
Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) feed the boy, try to draw him out and then deliver him to his mother, a nurse (Naomie Harris). But little keeps coming back.
And when he talks, his questions will break your heart, and Juan’s answers will make your head snap back.
“What’s a faggot?”
Juan thinks and gives maybe the most adult answer anybody has ever given to that query.
“It’s a word used to make gay people feel bad.”
“Moonlight” is an extraordinary gay coming-of-age melodrama set in the African American poverty of Miami’s Liberty City. A breakout film for writer-director Barry Jenkins, it is a serenely-paced, compellingly-acted, expertly shot and edited portrait of three stages of one boy’s life, his denying, facing, then denying again who he is as he copes with growing up on mean streets lined with palm trees.
The bullied little, sympathetically acted by Alex R. Hibbert, has heard that ugly word hurled at him. He’s so crushed by his life — and he hasn’t hit 11 yet — that he’s starting to ask that sort of question. Juan, a born father figure — at least for a guy who sells drugs – has advice that could save him.
“You ain’t gotta know right now…Decide for yourself who you’re gon’be.”
Jenkins tells his tale in three acts — “little,” the kid’s childhood, the suggestion that he might have his first crush, “Chiron” (little’s real name), taking the boy through even more awkward teens, and “Black,” the young man (Trevante Rhodes) the kid becomes.
Jenkins drops so many surprises into the plot, doling out information in compact, complex moments in between casually-observed slices of life, that it’s OK to give away the first couple — Juan’s real character, little’s real curiosity — because there are so many more that will rattle you.
Jenkins and his cinematographer and Steadicam operator James Laxton stalk this kid all through his life, tracking him from behind as he flees bullies, tries to “get hard” to stop the bullying and when he marches into the moment where he seals his fate. Laxton’s camera swirls around the street corners where Juan checks on his street-dealers and into the tender moment Chiron is introduced to sex.
The biggest surprise of all may be how simple the movie is, how easily its third act wrong-foots the viewer, how vivid, hateful and broken Harris’s mother character registers. If there’s an Oscar nomination in this picture, aside from script or cinematography, it’s hers.
Gay coming-of-age stories are common enough these days, but “Moonlight” finds a new perspective, a new setting and a compelling new filmmaking voice to tell that story. It’s one of the best pictures of the year.
MPAA Rating: R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout
Credits:Written and directed by Barry Jenkins. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:51