Sunday, November 27, 2016

Black and Blue: MOONLIGHT

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a movie about being Black and blue, about the sensitive emotional bruises of a melancholy young African American man growing up a misfit. He’s looking for connections – parental, friendly, romantic – and yet can hardly admit to himself how deeply his yearning goes, and in which directions it grows. It takes raw material that’d easily slip into standard issue social drama and fits it to a far more embodied and expressive form, rippling with tangible detail, staging dialogue scenes freighted with pregnant pauses and tender nuances under a softly crackling mood. It’s a coming-of-age and a coming-out story, a boy realizing he’s different as he’s trying to find his place. He’s a young boy, growing up impoverished in Miami, learning to fend for himself, drawn to a compassionate surrogate father figure: the neighborhood drug dealer who supplies his addict mother with her fix. He’s a teenager, shy and withdrawn, barely registering the slight trembles of flirtation with a brash peer’s similarly unspoken desires. He’s a young man, bulkier, tougher, more confident, but with a soft sweetness drawn out with the right words.

Told in three sections – each a resonant short film unto itself – Jenkins, adapting a work by Tarell Alvin McCraney, structures the film around relationships in the process of forming or deforming. In the first part, we meet the boy (Alex Hibbert) as he’s taken under the wing of the dealer (Mahershala Ali). He’s spotted alone, fleeing both the rough boys who tease him and the mother (Naomie Harris) in and out of her highs. The older man treats him to kindness, a gentle respect that cuts against the typical drug dealer stereotype. Consider a quietly stunning scene in which the boy, having internalized a bullying jeer, comprehending the intent without understanding the words, asks the fatherly influence, “What’s a fag?” There’s a long silence while the man chooses his words carefully and generously. Jenkins allows to hang in the empty space the potential for calamity (stoked, perhaps, by our culture’s preoccupation with miserable worst-case-scenario “realism” in this sort of fiction, an erroneous denial of possibilities for kindness, grace, and small favors). The release, and relief, comes as the boy gets exactly the right age-appropriate advice, an oasis of support in a turbulent childhood.

We next meet him as a teenager (Ashton Sanders), sullen and withdrawn, beholden to his mother’s whims and his social isolation. The rippling tensions he carries between his shoulder blades is bound to erupt—maybe in a tender moment of hesitant pleasure on the beach, or an explosive moment of violence in the cafeteria. They each have their momentary satisfactions for the boy. But neither get him all the way to where he wants to be. The movie’s final act—scenes, really—is a reconnection between the boy, now-grown man (Trevante Rhodes), and an old friend (André Holland). In Wong Kar-wai wooziness and smoky smoldering, the men hesitantly reminisce, tight-lipped and taciturn dialogue loaded with implication. For that’s what the movie’s best at, Jenkins mining the unspoken and the half-whispered for the expressively lit and intuitively cut connections that draw out the melodrama of the everyday. Here’s a tremendous work of empathy and sensitivity, moving and melodious as it lets its characters’ vulnerabilities draw them further into themselves, while holding out the possibility of fuller self-expression.

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