Rated R, 110 minutes
The insightful, superbly-acted drama "Moonlight" from director and writer Barry Jenkins is one of the year's most important films, not just that it could likely win many awards, but that its relevant, touching story it tells will stay with you long after you leave the theater.
"Moonlight" chronicles the life of a young, gay black man named Chiron from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place and identity while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami. As a child (Alex Hibbert) and teen (Ashton Sanders), Chiron learns valuable lessons as he faces bullying and a drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris, excellent) yet a kind-hearted stranger named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who becomes a father figure. As an adult (Trevante Rhodes), Chiron further struggles with finding his identity balancing his sexuality with a thug life, especially as he reconnects with Kevin (Andre Holland), an important figure from his past.
Thought-provoking, tender and often very pensive, Jenkins' "Moonlight" tells the remarkable story of Chiron, a pertinent one as it sheds light into LGBT and race issues within the black community. Those expecting it to be a tawdry, sex-filled look at identity will be misled, as it's one of the most balanced and restrained stories to be seen on the subject, and far more subdued than expected.
Still, don't be fooled by its low-key, slow-moving tone, as the character-driven "Moonlight" features some of the best performances of the year, and many will be rightfully talked about come awards time. Among them: newcomer Rhodes (shown here), in a breakout, magnetic turn as the adult Chiron in the film's final chapter, and "Selma's" Holland excellent as the adult Kevin, and their scenes are its more charming aspects; also stellar is Harris, best-known for playing Moneypenny in the last two James Bond films, as Chiron's crackhead mother whose abuse is not loving her son. In addition, there's Ali as Juan, the real father figure in his life, who teaches Chiron to be himself - there are two remarkable scenes in the first act: as Juan teaches Chiron to swim, and answering a couple of important questions the young Chiron has for him (the heartbreaking look on Juan's face is unforgettable).
Adding to its lovely texture is the solid turns from Hibbert and Sanders as a young, lanky Chiron, not to mention the haunting classical music score from Nicholas Britell ("The Big Short") and the gorgeous cinematography from James Laxton, filmed on location in Miami. Written by Jenkins' and based on on Tarell Alvin McCraney's autobiographical play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue," the movie is a semi-autobiographical ode for both Jenkins and McCraney, who both grew up in Miami with drug-addicted mothers.
Dreamy, slow and talky, the downbeat "Moonlight" may lose those who enjoy more energy with their films, and while it's certainly restrained, it's perhaps too restrained and too symbolic for its own good. Still, expect "Moonlight" to be in the race for awards, and yes, hopefully Oscars this year, and that haunting last scene with Rhodes and Holland will help its case. A must-see film and one of the year's best.