[Screen It]


(2016) (Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris) (R)

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Drama: A character grapples with growing up poor in the rough inner-city, dealing with bullies, and trying to sort out his sexuality as he transitions from a shy and picked-on boy through being a teenager and then an adult man.
In the south Florida neighborhood of Liberty City, Chiron (ALEX HIBBERT) is a young boy who lives with his single mom, Paula (NAOMIE HARRIS), and has been given the nickname "Little" due not only to his small size, but also him being a quiet, introspective kid who keeps to himself. His more outgoing friend, Kevin (JADEN PINER), tells him he should stand up for himself so that he's not seen as soft, especially since he must contend with homophobic slurs hurled his way from bullies who torment him. He escapes from some of them into an abandoned apartment where he's discovered by crack dealer Juan (MAHERSHALA ALI) who realizes the boy is hurting, alone and afraid. With Chiron not telling him where he lives, Juan takes him back home where he and his girlfriend, Teresa (JANELLE MON┴E), care for the boy until he finally opens up.

Years later, Chiron (ASHTON SANDERS) is now a teenager who's still friends with Kevin (JHARREL JEROME) and often stays with Teresa due to his mom now being a strung-out prostitute. He must still contend with bullies, including Terrel (PATRICK DECILE), and is uncertain about his sexual identity, what with being drawn to Kevin and vice-versa. But any budding romance there is ended when Kevin bows down to pressure from Terrel to beat a boy of his choosing. To no one's surprise, that ends up being Chiron who finally reaches his breaking point.

At least a decade later, Chiron (TREVANTE RHODES) is nearly unrecognizable with his gold plated teeth rims, muscular body and living the lifestyle of a well-to-do drug dealer. Out of the blue, he gets a call from Kevin (ANDR╔ HOLLAND) who, like Chiron, served time in prison but is now a cook who'd like to see his old friend. When the two meet, their future remains uncertain.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Since no sort of story is static in terms of its temporal positioning, all characters age, even if it's just the actual number of minutes in "real time" movies, TV shows and plays that play out over the course of 90 or more minutes.

Notwithstanding the backward trajectory of "Benjamin Button" sorts of characters (or those who appear in non-linear storylines), most of that aging is in the forward, growing older direction, although it's not always guaranteed that such aging is an important part of the storytelling. Usually, that just accompanies the mechanics of the plot moving forward through time. Sometimes, however, such aging is pivotal to the story and its themes.

A good example of that was Richard Linklater's 2014 drama "Boyhood." It focused on twelve years of the life of a character from first through just after twelfth grade and how the boy changed over those years. Of course, the remarkable thing was that Linklater shot the film over 12 years and used the same young actor for all versions of the character.

Writer/director Barry Jenkins didn't use that same sort of audacious, risky and time-consuming approach with "Moonlight," but it's still a terrific piece of filmmaking that instead uses three different actors to play the central character at three distinct but still interrelated moments in his life.

Broken into three acts labeled by the different names the character goes by at those three moments -- i. Little, ii. Chiron and iii. Black -- Jenkins focuses on growing up poor, black and gay in a rough Miami neighborhood and the long-lasting repercussions all of that has on his character over the course of time.

The first installment is the best where Little (Alex Hibbert) is a preadolescent boy who's picked on for being gay despite showing no such related sexual behavior yet and instead gets labeled that way for being quiet, small for his age, and keeping to himself. While his friend (Jaden Piner) tries to toughen him up, he gets an unlikely role model in the form of a crack dealer (Mahershala Ali) who becomes something of surrogate father figure to him, much to the dislike of Little's mom (Naomie Harris) who's not going to win parent of the year anytime in her lifetime.

The second chapter jumps forward a decade or so where the dealer father figure is no longer around, but his girlfriend (Janelle Monae) still cares for the teen (now played by Ashton Sanders) as needed, what with his mom having turned into a drugged up prostitute. Best friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is still around, boasting of heterosexual conquests when he obviously has a thing for Chiron and vice-versa. None of which sits well with their school's resident bully (Patrick Decile) who nips any sort of potential gay romance in the bud via a forced beat-down.

The last installment jumps forward another decade or so where our protagonist (Trevante Rhodes looking nothing like the previous incarnation, what with being all beefed up as compared to the bean pole teen from earlier) has gone full circle by becoming a drug dealer following a stint in the joint. He's tough on the outside, but a call from his former friend (Andre Holland) reveals his softer and still insecure side when the two meet up.

Little if any of this covers any real new ground, but there's something about the way Jenkins has assembled and presented it that makes the story, characters, and themes feel fresh. The direction is terrific, including the choice to use strains of classical music (and particularly the cacophony of rising musical sounds typically heard when an orchestra is warming up) rather than just the usual and expected rap music soundtrack. The performances are solid across the board from all involved, with Ali particularly standing out as a drug dealer with a heart and growing conscience about his livelihood, while Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes are completely believable in their respective versions of the main character.

While the cinema has been littered with stereotypical films about stereotypical inner-city drug dealers, gang-bangers and such, "Moonlight" offers a fresh and engaging perspective on such lifestyles and those affected by that and other sorts of less than ideal behavior and circumstances. It rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed November 28, 2016 / Posted December 2, 2016

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