One of the biggest drawbacks with a film script is that there’s only a limited number of pages that can be dedicated to a character’s history. Most background information is either taken care of with a short prologue or sprinkled throughout the story.
Most times, the result is little more than a rough character sketch. That’s usually enough, especially in films that bank more on special effects than special affections.
Such is “Moonlight.”
The movie, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, is a slow journey through the pain-filled life of a young black man charted from his troubled childhood to his uncertain adulthood. The way Jenkins has structured his work isn’t to give us a fully formed adult but to give the audience a ringside seat to see the outside influences that shaped this young man.
It’s painful and frustrating to watch at times but is such a compelling look into a the metamorphosis of man that it is endlessly engaging.
The story starts with the meek and mild 9-year-old Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) known as Little. As his nickname would suggest, Little is the endless target of bullies. He’s discovered hiding in an abandoned apartment in an area of town known for drugs after one close encounter with the bullies. Juan (Mahershala Ali) is one of the local dealers who obviously sees some of his own history in the fear-filled eyes of Little.
This is where Jenkins establishes a very solid ground floor for Little’s life. He’s so unhappy living in a home without a father and with a drug-using mother that he would find solace with the crack dealer who has helped create some of the biggest ills in his life.
It’s as if Jenkins has injected a slow-working poison into Chiron as he must deal with the growing revelation that the man who is showing him the first kind attention in his life is also such a negative influence. The realization slowly eats at him.
Jenkins jumps the story ahead in the second act where an older Chiron (Ashton Sanders) continues to be bullied now with more emphasis on his being gay. The constant abuse he gets at school and at home sends Chiron over the edge.
That leads to the third act where Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is an adult. He’s transformed himself into a hardened drug dealer who has created a life like the one Juan had. Jenkins finally allows the movie to have a softer edge as Chiron visits with a person from his past who gives him an opportunity to get past all the pain of his hard life and find a moment of happiness.
All of this goes together to make a rich and full character study. It’s not necessary to see the adult Chiron and try to piece together the elements that made him the man he became. Jenkins allows the viewer to be privy to the life moments that shaped Chiron’s character.
It all works because each actor playing Chiron use a quiet performance to show the emotional wanting and social rejections. Jenkins smoothly guides all three into what becomes one memorable performance.
The structure of “Moonlight” shows that human beings are complex characters who are changed by the people, places and things in their lives. Getting to watch the transformation is as compelling as it is chilling.
Cast: Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, André Holland
Director: Barry Jenkins
Rating: R (sexuality, violence, language, drug use)
Opens: Friday, Nov. 18