Entertainment·MOVIE REVIEW

Moonlight shines with a searing coming-of-age tale

Already an Oscar front-runner, the new movie Moonlight casts a light on a sensitive, searing coming-of-age story, says CBC's Eli Glasner.

Much-praised movie explores life of marginalized boy with tenderness and grace

Moonlight is an acclaimed new coming-of-age movie by director Barry Jenkins. (Elevation Pictures)

"Who is you, Chiron?"

It's a question that gets to the heart of the new movie Moonlight — a film about identity, about trying to belong and about our hidden selves.

This new film from director Barry Jenkins explores a life told in three parts and starring three separate actors as Chiron, an African-American growing up in the housing projects of Miami.

Moonlight begins with a chapter titled "Little," the nickname given to the small, shy Chiron (Alex Hibbert), whom other children instantly identify as different. Pouncing, they chase the wide-eyed boy into hiding, where he is rescued by a drug dealer named Juan.

Alex Hibbert, left, and Mahershala Ali appear in a scene from Moonlight. (Elevation Pictures)

You might recognize Mahershala Ali as Remy Danton from House of Cards, but his performance as Juan is something else entirely. Squinting at the Florida sky and his tongue on his lips, he first appears as a stereotypical street hustler. But under that thuggish pose, there's kindness.

Juan recognizes something in this scared boy and offers him shelter. He takes Chiron home, where Juan's girlfriend (played by Janelle Monae) provides a warm meal and safe place to rest. It's a world of difference from the shabby apartment Chiron shares with his crack-smoking mother (played by Naomie Harris).

Naomie Harris portrays Chiron's drug-addicted mother. (Elevation Pictures)

Flash forward into Chiron's teen years and Ashton Sanders portrays him as a gangly, awkward adolescent plodding through the daily ritual of bullying. With his mother spiraling further down, his only friend is Kevin, a ladies' man with swagger to spare. But one evening on the beach, Kevin and Chiron drop the posturing in an aching moment of desire, which makes what follows all the more devastating.

Total transformation

Moonlight's final chapter features Trevante Rhodes as the fully grown Chiron. His back rippling with power, teeth capped with flashy grills, this Chiron is almost unrecognizable. At first, I had trouble seeing Rhodes as Chiron, but upon reflection I think that's the point. 

Trevante Rhodes plays Chiron fully grown, his back rippling with power, teeth capped with flashy grills. (Elevation Pictures)

Like a snake shedding his skin, his transformation is a defence mechanism. Somewhere behind this display of strength and menace is still the same, emotionally stunted child, who still lacks the vocabulary to express or perhaps even understand his desires.

What follows is a delicate reunion with Kevin in a diner, with The Knick's André Holland portraying the character with warmth and good humour. Chiron says little, but his searching eyes speak volumes. 

A lush and lyrical revelation

Part of what makes Moonlight such a revelation is Jenkins' delicate treatment of the inner lives of black men. There's a tenderness we rarely see as the film shines a light on a subculture where too often vulnerability is seen as weakness.

Unlike other films documenting poverty or inequality, Moonlight doesn't wallow in misery; instead, it's a lush, lyrical experience. The haunting score by Nicholas Britell is interrupted by bursts of staccato editing. 

It is not a movie that ever fully resolves itself, but instead leaves you — like Chiron — yearning for more. 

"Who is you, Chiron?" asks Kevin.

"I'm me man," he responds. "I ain't trying to be nothing else."

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 stars


Eli Glasner

Senior entertainment reporter

Eli Glasner is the senior entertainment reporter and screentime columnist for CBC News. Covering culture has taken him from the northern tip of Moosonee Ontario to the Oscars and beyond.