If Moonlight were merely groundbreaking for its representation, it would be worth championing. Were it it simply a well-done coming-of-age story, it would be worth celebrating. But at every turn, this quiet movie reveals more and more riches.
Checking in on Chiron – poor, black and gay – at three different periods of his difficult life, Moonlight gives us only sketches that reveal a beautiful, heartbreaking picture at the end.
In the first segment, Alex Hibbert plays Little, who starts the movie on the run from bullies and pretty much never stops. He finds a role model (or at least a father figure) in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who never judges Little, even when he doesn't exemplify any of the street toughness he requires of his lieutenants. Ali (Luke Cage, House of Cards) is so good here, I wanted to see him in more of the movie, even though the story doesn't really require his presence. Little frequently runs away from home and into the arms of Juan because his mother (Naomie Harris, Oscar-worthy) is succumbing to drugs, pawning off their TV to feed her addiction. Little at least finds some comfort in Kevin (played here by Jaden Piner), the only thing resembling a friend Little ever has, and who will end up being the most critical figure in his life.
The middle section hits the hardest, as Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is now a wounded teenager going by his birth name. The teasing he faced at the hands of bullies has turned violent and rage boils inside him. He just wants to be left alone, but finds the walls closing in. He's increasingly independent (since his mother is too drugged out to properly care for him), but ill-equipped to actually raise himself. His quasi-friendship with Kevin takes an unexpected turn, which unfortunately only means more heartbreak for Chiron.
Years pass, and now Black (Trevante Rhodes) is a drug dealer in Atlanta. After getting a standing invitation from Kevin (André Holland), fresh out of prison, to come back to their Miami neighborhood for dinner, Black is forced to reckon with the front he's put up as a "man": a muscular, grill-wearing tough guy you wouldn't dare mess with. Their reunion doesn't go exactly as expected, but that just makes the movie deeper and richer.
Moonlight, capturing its action with some of the year's most breathtaking cinematography, is more interested in the quiet moments. It eschews big monologues, letting its characters have conversations that seem natural even though they're rarely spoken. The three actors who play Chiron are all magnificent, capturing the swirl of emotions he feels perfectly.
This is a film that challenges the American ideal of masculinity without ever announcing itself as an important, barrier-breaking revolution. Moonlight is a refreshing, bracing break from not just what Hollywood churns out, but also from the awards-driven independent films that dominate the end of the year. It is all this and more. Though there are still many great films to be released between now and December 31st, it will be hard to see another movie matching the depths of Moonlight.