Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Barry Jenkins | Moonlight

learning how to float
by Douglas Messerli

Barry Jenkins (screenplay, based on a play and story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and director)  Moonlight / 2016

Barry Jenkins’ well-written-and-directed film, based on a play and film script by Tarell Alvin McCraney, takes us to places where few black films have previously gone. In its tripartite structure, Jenkins’ work explores the issues of growing up in poor projects (this in Liberty City, Miami) from childhood to being an adult and the toll it takes on people’s lives. 
       Beginning with a skinny, almost malnourished young boy, Chiron (Alex Hibbert), whose nickname in his early days is “Little” because of both his size and manner, is plagued by a mother who is quickly developing a drug habit.

The film begins (filmed in Fuji film) with the young schoolboy being chased by his larger peers into a vacant motel, where he hides out to protect himself. A local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds him there and, recognizing his terror, takes him home to his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe) where, together, the two feed the boy and finally get him to talk. Returned to his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), “Little” is berated and punished him for having not come home. 
       Over the next few days, things get even worse as she becomes more and more involved in drugs, and finally attacks him (which the film brilliantly expresses in silence) as a “faggot,” a word the young boy does even understand. He returns to Juan and Teresa, who, once again, invite him in, as he asks questions about sexuality and other fears, which they, kindly, attempt to explain to him, reassuring him that if he does later find himself to be gay, he must choose his own identity.

       Juan is the first of many stereotypes in this film who is revealed to be much different individual that he may live as day by day; despite Chiron’s painful connection that this is one of the men who sells his mother drugs, he might have made a wonderful father for the boy, behavior we particularly perceive when he takes “Little” to the ocean and gently teaches him to swim. And even when Juan drops out of the film (we hear later that he has apparently died), Chiron continues to return to Theresa to escape the mother he has now grown to hate, she, in turn, slipping extra money into his pockets.
       The second section of Moonlight is shot in modified Kodak, signaled by a blue image in the quick interlude. As the teen Chiron (André Holland), the boy has grown in a gangly kid, who still seems lost in pain and fear. Now those who taunted him as a child are even more aggressive in their raging hormonal changes, not only threatening him, but mocking his tight jeans as opposed to their baggy streetwear. Chiron is also further abused by his increasingly drugged-out mother.
       One fellow student, in particular, Terrel (Patrick Decile), is determined to punish the still-shy boy, who now, with his only friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), realizes his gay sexuality one late night on the beach. Yet Kevin is also a former tough guy, accepted by his classmates, including Terrel, who forces him to engage in a hazing tradition of beating a chosen classmate until he refuses to get up.

       Having now fallen in love with Kevin, Chiron, when struck by his friend, stands again and again to accept his face blows, finally leading to a schoolyard brawl, saved only by the intervention of school faculty. Chiron retaliates the very next day by angrily slamming a chair over Terrel’s head, and, when finally quelled, is hurried off to jail by police.
       The third section, shot in Agfra film stock (adding cyan to its images, a complimentary to red, signified by a red spot in the brief interlude), features Trevante Rhodes as a march darker, hulkier, and menacing adult Chiron, who,  working in Atlanta—where his aging mother now lives and works in a rehabilitation center—as a drug dealer, like his father-figure Juan. If we do not like the gold-tapped toothed “Black,” his new nickname, as much as we did his previous incarnations, it is because he has now retreated so far into himself that he no longer knows who he was or might have been.
      Yet in his nightly wet sweats, he realize that this street thug is having many of the same problems of his youth. His mother calls to beg him to visit her, as he equally attempts to ignore her pleas. When the phone rings again he attempts to reassure her that he will visit, before finally realizing that the call is from his old friend-enemy, Kevin, who now works as a cook in Miami, after having himself served time in jail. Kevin has heard a song on his restaurant’s jukebox that suddenly reminded him of his long ago friendship, and has somehow found Chiron’s telephone number.

        For “Black” the call brings up everything he hates about himself and the love he once (and evidently only once) so enjoyed. Without even thinking carefully, “Black” visits his mother—which, in one of the most touching scenes of the film, results in a kind of painful resolution to their lifelong separations—and takes to the road, arriving at the small café where Kevin works as chef and server both. After recognizing his long missing classmate, Kevin whips up a special Cuban dish and serves it to his friend, insisting that, even though Chiron does not drink, that he share a couple bottles of wine. 
       Their elliptical conversation seems to take them nowhere, as Kevin admits that he married, had a baby, and is now separated but friendly with his former wife; and Chiron, as unable to express himself as always, dares not to hint at why he has made the trip. Neither knows how to clearly brooch the subject of their own failures, loneliness, and total isolation. 
      Having nowhere to stay the night, Chiron takes up Kevin’s offer to visit his small apartment, where finally Kevin himself admits that he had failed in almost everything he attempted until now, working as he does for nearly nothing. Chiron, meanwhile, admits that he has never been with another man since Kevin on the beach, perhaps one the saddest admissions about love ever expressed in film. Whether these two men have sex that night or not is beside the point: each has come home to help the other to find expressions of love that they have never before been able to admit, and the final scene simply portrays the somewhat menacing Chiron with his head upon Kevin’s shoulder.
       While this film, in part, is a kind of black gay story, it is, more importantly, about abused children who have never had the opportunity to express the love which might have nurtured them into adulthood. These now hardened males must find their own way back into tenderness and feeling, a difficult journey for all.
        Jenkins, his cinematographer James Laxton, and his editors Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon take what is basically a naturalistic tale, and break it down into stunningly-timed images that reveal more than any one character can express. 
       Although all of the actors are quite wonderful in their gentle and almost mute performances (Naomie Harris and the child actor, Alex Hibbert, are particularly memorable), it is their actions that matter most: tears at the most unexpected moment, a quiet and hard-won bubble bath, the gesture of helping one learn to float, an unexpected kiss, a loving sprinkle of parsley upon a special dish. To say this small film is elegant in those images is an understatement. Jenkins turns the everyday, the painful, and the ugly into visions of a restoral of life. 
        As awful as Chiron’s surroundings have been, it is a world, when looked into more carefully, as this film does, we recognize as filled with would-be loving figures—if only given half a chance.

Los Angeles, November 1, 2016

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