At a pivotal moment in Moonlight, a character fires up a jukebox with Barbara Lewis' classic "Hello Stranger." The slow-burn ballad spools out into the room — transforming its mundanity into something floridly romantic and saying the words that the two men on screen can't say.
That scene encapsulates what's magic about Barry Jenkins' indie drama. Set in the projects of Miami, Moonlight isn't a film of ideas but of fragile, captured moments. And it gives full weight to each of them as it tells the unconventional coming-of-age story of Chiron, played as a child by Alex Hibbert, as a teen by Ashton Sanders and as an adult by Trevante Rhodes.
Based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, that story is uncommon in our multiplexes — though not unprecedented — because Chiron is black, gay and poor. It's unconventional in a deeper sense, too, because he doesn't come of age in the ways that movies have trained audiences to expect.
Early on in the film, the withdrawn, bullied young boy finds a mentor, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who tells him to find his own way and not let others define his identity. It's a standard message for a genre that typically affirms the power of self-determination. And Chiron does, in some ways, determine his own fate, transforming himself from a kid dismissively nicknamed "Little" into an adult who commands respect. In the process, though, he arguably loses as much as he gains.
That's partly because Chiron's world defines manhood as physical and emotional "hardness." It's a familiar motif in movies about the inner city, but Jenkins doesn't populate his film with stereotypes. Juan is a drug dealer, but also a gentle, enlightened surrogate dad, and his scenes with Chiron are heartbreaking. Chiron's mom (Naomie Harris) is a junkie, but she also wants to do right by her son. When her hands tremble and he lights her cigarette for her, the wordless communication speaks volumes about bonds nothing can undo.
Jenkins' filmmaking choices call attention to themselves. From the long, swooping opening shot of a drug corner to the use of Mozart on the soundtrack, this is a vision of urban grit filtered through an unabashedly artistic sensibility. In general, though, those bold choices aren't random flourishes but ones that serve the story. In a scene where Chiron's mother is jonesing, for instance, Jenkins uses jagged camera movements and mounting and receding waves of background noise to pull us into her headspace. Briefly, we're in a horror movie — the jangling chaos that is Chiron's everyday life.
We need that artistry to bring us into Chiron's headspace, too, because Moonlight is the rare coming-of-age film with a protagonist so introverted that he seldom reveals himself, even to the viewer. (The last similar movie I can recall was Jane Campion's 1990 biopic An Angel at My Table.) What the three actors who play Chiron lack in physical resemblance they make up for with eerily similar body language: averted eyes, hunched shoulders, palpable discomfort. The defensive posture of the boy tells us everything we need to know about the aggressive posturing of the man — a disguise that grants him power but not satisfaction.
Viewers who seek an uplifting message in Moonlight will be disappointed; the film doesn't offer any kind of soothing balm for our troubled times. What it does offer is a powerful affirmation of its characters' complex humanity, with all the beauty and sorrow that entails. When Lewis' song snakes out of that jukebox, it transfigures the world around it, painting everything in new colors — much like the fleeting radiance for which Moonlight is named. For all the film's darkness, audiences may emerge glowing a little, too.