The film that should win the Oscar

Directed by Barry Jenkins
Written by Jenkins, based on a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney
111 minutes, rated M
4.5 stars

The poster for Moonlight features a black man’s face, divided into three slivers, each a different shade, from turquoise through mauve to blue-black. It looks like one face but it’s actually three, cleverly chosen to match at the eyes. What’s harder to pick is that the faces are of different ages: boy to teen to man.

That turns out to be the trajectory of the film. In the first act, we follow a boy of nine, known as Little. Alex Hibbert is heartbreakingly good at communicating Little’s loneliness and fear, growing up in a Miami housing project. He’s being bullied – which is how he meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), the local crack dealer. We don’t know what Juan is after, but he takes the kid home to his girlfriend, to see if she can get him to talk. Teresa (Janelle Monae) feeds him and waits for him to say his name, which is Chiron (rhymes with Tyrone).

That name becomes the title of the second act. Little Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is about 16, and his life has not improved. His mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is addicted to the crack she used to buy from Juan. A kid in Chiron’s class threatens to kill him for being gay – not that Chiron really knows what he is yet. His boyhood pal Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is still his only friend; he calls him ‘Black’, a nickname that becomes the title for the final act. Chiron is now a man, played by Trevante Rhodes, and a long way from being that little boy. Kevin is also played by three different actors, which is confusing. Andre Holland, as the grown-up Kevin, now reappears in Black’s life after a long absence.

The three-age structure was there in the original (and unpublished) story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, written while in drama school, perhaps 15 years ago. Barry Jenkins heard about the story through mutual friends in the Miami film world. They did not know each other, despite growing up in Liberty Square – the same notoriously rough housing project in Miami – and even attending some of the same schools. They had another thing in common too – both were children of mothers addicted to crack cocaine – as well as some significant differences. McCraney is gay; Jenkins is not.

Moonlight is hard to classify, even harder to describe, in terms of its considerable achievements. It’s not simply a gay film, even though it’s beautiful and sensitive on that level. It’s certainly a film about some of the things that matter, in the context of Black Lives Matter. Is it about the horror of drugs in poor black communities? Not really, although Naomie Harris’s performance is affecting. A film about manhood then? Absolutely.

What Barry Jenkins does here, in his second feature, is to find the beauty, rather than just the horror. Thus, when things are at a low ebb and 16-year-old Chiron confronts his bloody face in the mirror after a beating, the close-up takes your breath away with its direct honesty. And when Juan takes Little to the ocean and teaches him to swim, with the camera lens half submerged, we get a shot of such tenderness that it infuses the whole film with compassion. In narrative terms, the camera and the action on screen are telling two different stories at the same time: one would be the tough account of a lonely kid’s terrible upbringing; the other would be about his discovery that love exists, and that it may come from places you do not expect and people you don’t trust.

This contradiction suspends the film between heaven and hell. That may be the best way of describing what Jenkins does so well here. He takes off into moments of reverie, where Nicholas Britell’s score transports us above the action, when we least expect it. Naomie Harris may be screaming abuse at her son through a fog of addiction, but we don’t hear her words, just the music as Chiron tries to dream himself away. These moments give the film such power: melancholia, release, transcendence. In its combination of ambition, sensitivity and originality, Moonlight is certainly one of the best films of the year.