Moonlight Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes. Directed by Barry Jenkins. Rated R. Opens Friday in select theaters.
In a movie full of quietly devastating scenes, possibly the most heartbreaking moment in Moonlight comes early, in the first of three segments depicting the life and struggles of the introverted Chiron. Confused young Chiron (Alex Hibbert), teased by his classmates and neglected by his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), forges a friendship with local drug dealer (an excellent Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend (Janelle Monáe), who treat Chiron with kindness and respect. At their dinner table, the quiet, withdrawn kid musters up the courage to ask about the one term his peers have constantly thrown at him, inquiring with all innocence, “Am I a faggot?”
As he grows up, Chiron (played as a teen by Ashton Sanders and as a young adult by Trevante Rhodes) struggles to answer that question, and even when he finally grasps the answer, he’s so constrained by expectations that he’s barely able to act on it. Writer-director Barry Jenkins (working from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney) makes Moonlight into a soulful, meditative character study of a character who doesn’t even understand himself. It’s grounded in real details of Miami’s black community and in the three deeply internalized performances, although sometimes Chiron’s taciturn nature can be frustrating (especially in the slow-moving third segment). Nothing that follows has the same power as that early moment of vulnerability, but each segment achieves its own grace.