Reel Dad: Moonlight shares compelling coming-of-age story

(This week, Jonathan Schumann returns to Arts and Leisure to review Moonlight, a new film recently featured at the New York Film Festival. Jonathan shared this column with his dad, Mark Schumann, from 1999 to 2006. He now lives in New York City.)

by Jonathan Schumann

At a time when representation in film is at the fore of the collective conversation, the new film Moonlight is a rallying cry for stories we haven’t seen before, from voices we don’t hear from enough. In some ways its existence alone is a triumph. That it brings its story to life with such resonance is a testament to director Barry Jenkins’ sensitivity and vibrant visual style as well as a remarkable ensemble cast.

Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight.

Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight.

Jenkins tells the story of Chiron, a poor, black, gay man, in three distinct chapters spanning from childhood through adulthood. It’s a similar conceit to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which also constructed its narrative by weaving together pivotal moments that occur across a lifetime. Here, three different actors portray Chiron at the different time periods (Alex Hibbert then Ashton Sanders then Trevante Rhodes).

We first meet Chiron (Hibbert) as a shy, bullied kid who finds a surrogate family with a drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) and his nurturing girlfriend (Janelle Monae). His mother (Naomie Harris) comes off as a protective lioness slowly slipping away into drug addiction. In the second chapter, Chiron’s a bit older, the bullying leads to violent outbursts at school, and emerging sexuality creates confusion and feelings of isolation. The final chapter plays more like a love story, where an adult Chiron reconnects with a friend from the past.

Throughout, Jenkins brings his story to life with a striking visual style that captures a Miami like we haven’t seen before. This isn’t the glitz and neon of Michael Mann. Jenkins finds spaces that feel both desolate and claustrophobic, echoing Chiron’s loneliness and inner conflict. The color palate, full of blues, conveys this pathos.

Altogether, it’s a precise rendering that, while exquisite and well done, somehow left me a bit cold. To his credit, Jenkins doesn’t manipulate the emotionally rich terrain; however, his formalism and decision to go the subtle route may limit the film’s overall impact.

The acting is uniformly excellent. Ali, memorable on Netflix’s House of Cards and Luke Cage, exudes charisma as the closest person Chiron has as a father figure. Though he’s only present in the film’s first chapter, his presence is felt until the end. Harris, best known at this point as the Moneypenny to Daniel Craig’s Bond in Skyfall and Spectre, is a force of nature as Chiron’s mother. She evolves from casual drug user to full-blown addict to an empty shell. She’s one of the few characters present across all of these chapters, a constant push and pull on Chiron’s life.

Before Moonlight, Jenkins had not made a film since 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy. We can only hope that Moonlight’s critical reception prevents such a long gap before his next effort.

Moonlight is Rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language. It is opening in area theaters. It runs 1 hour, 50 minutes.

Moonlight

Rating: Four Popcorn Buckets

Video Pick

Interested in a film suggested by Moonlight?

Pariah

Dee Rees’ film about a young woman growing up in New York City and struggling with her sexuality covers similar emotional terrain as Moonlight. At moments a tough sit, but ultimately emotionally fulfilling, the film also is a breakout showcase for actress Adepero Oduye.

Rated R for sexual content and language; runs 1 hour, 26 minutes

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