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'Moonlight' casts a light on a place of emotional darkness

“Moonlight” – “I have no way of judging the future but by the past” – Patrick Henry

In the working class sections of Miami, a group of kids pick on a little boy nicknamed Little and chase him into an abandoned, dilapidated house with plaster falling off the walls and crack pipes laying on the floors. When a drug dealer, Juan (Mahershola Ali), finds him, he feels sorry for Little, gives him a ride and a meal. Soon, Little takes to Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae) as a father and the mother that he wishes he had, respectively.

With massive problems at home and in school, Little turns to silence rather than talking it out, but does reveal to Juan and Teresa that the boys call him derogatory names. Specifically, they believe that Little is gay.

“Moonlight” is an intimate portrayal of Little, not only as a boy, but also as a teen and adult. This three-act play features his journey of living through poverty and bullying throughout his childhood with very small glimpses of reprieves, and all the while, trying to deal with his sexuality in an unaccepting environment.

Based on the story by Tarell McCraney, director Barry Jenkins’ movie refrains from flashy gunplay and much hyper violence. Instead, it features Little’s (mostly) quiet struggle in his community and the coping mechanisms that come with it, which general consist of swallowing one’s problems and live with the emotional pain.

Since the story unfolds in three different time periods, Jenkins pays close attention to detail with including purposeful consistencies between them. For instance, water becomes a place of safe harbor for Little, and this began in the opening act during a moment of actual trust between Juan and him.

More importantly, the three periods give the audience a chance to see how he learns and grows into adulthood. In some cases, his behavior does not change. He slumps while eats at the table and stares downward rather than looking at the person sitting across from him. Bigger themes than slumping certainly raise their head, because Little is a damaged soul. Not because of his sexuality, but due to the lack of a nurturing environment. It could come as a surprise as to how Little deals with his demons as a man, but during the third act, we realize that his fate makes perfect sense in an less than perfect world.

Alex R. Hibbert, Aston Sanders and Trevante Rhodes deliver nearly flawless portrayals of Little throughout his life, and bring those consistent elements to the character, as well as his traits that evolve over time. Likewise, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland carry the torch for Kevin, who carries one for Little as his only real friend though the various times. The meeting between Rhodes and Holland in the third chapter could culminate into any possible number of directions, but the one chosen by Jenkins feels perfect in world that clearly is not.

(3.5/4 stars)

Image credits: A24

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