Flashback: One of the freshest films at the 2008 San Francisco International Film festival was Barry Jenkins’ Medicine for Melancholy, the talky, bracingly modern African-American romance about Micah and Angela, a pair of lovers who move to an apartment in SF’s Tenderloin — it’s on Geary at Leavenworth — to pursue their urban dreams. The mood of the city they envision is free-spirited and inexpensive, even though one of their ongoing discussions is about how few Black people live there.
The basic predicament facing Micah and Angela hasn’t changed much in the eight years since then, in fact by most measures it’s gotten worse. But the excitement of youthful anticipation that tumbles out of every frame in writer-director Jenkins’ ultra-indie romance still lingers in the mind. In common with his characters, Jenkins may be a dreamer, but his dreams are of the things anyone can reach, that everyone carries inside — the magic of sincere human interconnection. Jenkins’ new film Moonlight takes that personal, internalized quest to great heights in a story of a young man named Chiron, or “Little,” or “Black” — depending on who’s talking to him at different stages of his life.
The short, dismissive way to categorize Moonlight would be to call it “the African-American Boyhood,” but Jenkins’ time-lapse portrait of Chiron — adapted by Jenkins and Tarell McCraney from McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue — is quite a bit more complicated. Little (Alex R. Hibbert) is a shy, slight kid with a crack-addicted prostitute for a mom (extraordinarily played by Naomie Harris), who gets beat on every day of his life. One day, while hiding in an abandoned apartment, Little is discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali from Free State of Jones), the neighborhood dope dealer, who takes pity on the “little man.”
Together with his angel-of-mercy partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe), Juan gives the frightened, “different” boy the parenting any one of us would love to have. They help him work out the facts of life, so to speak. “Am I a faggot?” asks Little with heartbreaking innocence, and Juan explains. Little survives and grows into the teenaged Chiron (pronounced SHY-ron, played by Ashton Sanders), who follows Juan into the family business, standing on the corner, checking the traps. Move over, Richard Linklater and Terrence Malick.
Right down the line, every single actor in the large cast paints a remarkable, unhurried, true-to-life portrait. We would like to believe, we are led to believe, that the tripartite Little/Chiron/Black — Black is the character as a grown man, an ex-offender, played by Trevante Rhodes — are all modeled in some way on the filmmaker himself. At each important juncture in Chiron’s life, someone helps him make that next step: Juan, Teresa, Chiron’s best friend Kevin (impersonated at three stages by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland), and even the pathetic figure of his mother. Hibbert, Sanders, Rhodes, Harris, Ali, Monáe, Piner, Jerome, Holland — there aren’t enough acting prizes in the business to reward them all for what they bring. Best of all is the way the story flows by at the speed of life, without overt musical cues or corny technique. But don’t be misled by the art-film packaging, beautiful as it is. Moonlight is as straightforward as a hundred-dollar bill.
Director Jenkins likes close-ups. His actors’ faces are iconic and meant to be closely studied, and yet there are faces with just as much depth of character, with just as many life stories in them, on every street in every town. With this masterpiece of multi-character study, the talented writer-director is trying to convince us not to be afraid to touch someone else. Not just on social media, but up close and in person, spontaneously, even impulsively. Moonlight is only Jenkins’ second released narrative feature, after Medicine for Melancholy. Let’s see some more, please.