Movie review: Surprise Oscar champ 'Moonlight' cuts deep with a soft touch

Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali

Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali David Bornfriend

The power and nuance of a surprise Oscar winner

Barry Jenkins’ surprise Best Picture winner, Moonlight, deserves your undivided attention even more than most movies. Its power is the kind that can easily slip past a distracted viewer.

Moonlight’s victory was highly improbable and in some ways unprecedented. By now it’s nearly impossible to go into the film without preconceived notions or lofty expectations, not just because it won the highest prize in the land but because of the shocking manner in which it did so.

You should try, though. When seen distraction-free, Moonlight’s unique energy hums on a frequency all its own. In some ways, it can be considered a coming-of-age film, albeit the rare kind that admits growing up doesn’t always bring clear-cut resolution. Following a black child (and, later, a teenager and young man) coming to grips with his sexuality through three stages of his life, Moonlight cuts deep with a soft touch.

“What you doin’ in here, little man?” Chiron is asked the first time he meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), who comes to be like a father to him. He’ll spend the rest of the film attempting to answer that and similar questions (“Who is you, man?”), most often without actually responding. Chiron’s plight, and maybe even his tragedy, is that time brings little clarity — Moonlight’s three chapters find him retreating deeper into himself rather than becoming more comfortable in his own skin.

Juan is a drug dealer, and one of his clients is Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris). They all live in or near Liberty City, a housing project in Miami; so did Jenkins and his co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney. Chiron spends as little time at home as possible, preferring the more welcoming environs of the house Juan shares with Teresa (Janelle Monáe, who, like Ali, is magnetic both here and in Hidden Figures). It’s a respite, but a temporary one. He eventually has to set out on his own.

One piece of outside information that does help is the name of the unproduced play on which Moonlight is based, McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. It’s spoken aloud when Juan, whose presence looms over the whole of the film despite being limited to the first section, tells a story from his youth in Cuba. He’s just taught Chiron to swim in the ocean — an achingly beautiful sequence in which the camera dips in and out of the water as the child, for what might be the first time in his life, is able to let himself go — and is now imparting an even more important lesson. “At some point you gotta decide who you gonna be,” Juan tells the boy. “Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”

In moments of stillness, with the soft orchestral score surging and the edges of the frame blurred, we see the person Chiron’s becoming, the person he’s trying not to show to the world. Chiron is referred to by two nicknames throughout — “Little” in the first section, “Black” in the second — neither of which he likes and both of which contribute to his crisis of identity. Three different actors play him (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) and the collective portrait they paint is as detailed as it it nuanced.

Moonlight is fragmented by design, with each of its three chapters offering glimpses rather than deep dives, and at times you can’t help wondering what’s happened offscreen that might deepen your understanding of Chiron and his world. That may be Jenkins’ cleverest trick: He leaves you wanting more, striving for the same meaning that eludes Chiron.

Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe
Theater: Now playing, area theaters
Rated: R