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'Moonlight': A stunning American masterpiece

How do you want to leave the movie theater? Reassured and comforted? Or disquieted, unsettled?

If you think art should challenge us, then you will embrace writer-director Barry Jenkins' exquisitely crafted drama Moonlight. It's a true American masterpiece and one of the best films of the decade.

A formally rigorous work that marries brutal social realism with a lyricism rarely seen on screen since the work of Jean Cocteau, Jenkins' film is a coming-of-age story about a young, gay black man named Chiron from a Miami ghetto, whose life is defined and delimited from early childhood by a constant struggle with outsize forces that seem insurmountable.

Some are external – debilitating poverty, a hopelessly dysfunctional home life, a school system invested in discipline rather than learning.

Some of the struggles are deeply internal, including Chiron's confusion about his sexuality and his quest for a worthy father figure.

Jenkins made his feature debut with the 2008 micro-budget indie Medicine for Melancholy, a sweet meditation on romance that questioned assumptions on race and gender. He continues that challenge in Moonlight, which he adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by his fellow Miamian Tarell Alvin McCraney.

The film is divided into three parts, each about a different period in Chiron's life and with three different actors playing the role along the way.

In the first, he's a tiny shrimp of a 10-year-old growing up in the heyday of crack cocaine in the 1980s. An only child, Chiron (newcomer Alex R. Hibbert) is forced to parent his immature single mom, Paula, who is alternately clingy and abusive as she falls deeper into drug addiction. Played with tragic intensity by Skyfall's Naomie Harris, Paula considers Chiron too effeminate and addresses him with epithets for homosexuality.

Far too small for his age and dubbed "Little" by his peers, Chiron is bullied by other boys, save his best friend, Kevin (played at this stage by Jaden Piner), a supremely confident, even cocky kid with the gift of gab. Their growing relationship will become one of the defining factors of the film.

Chiron also finds acceptance and warmth from a pair of grownups, Juan (House of Cards' Mahershala Ali) and his remarkably nurturing girlfriend Teresa (singer Janelle Monáe), who effectively serve as his parents for half a dozen years.

It seems beside the point that Juan is the neighborhood's biggest crack dealer. Chiron comes to learn that Juan's work – which has helped destroy his mom – is just a fact of nature, like the sun or the racism that infects the city. It doesn't render Juan any less brave, less kind, less protective. Moonlight abounds with these maddening paradoxes in a world turned upside down by privation, prejudice, and violence.

Ashton Sanders (Straight Outta Compton, The Retrieval) stars in the second section as the teenage Chiron, a hopelessly awkward boy late to puberty who is ridiculed by his peers for his eccentric mannerisms, his intellectual curiosity, and his interest in getting good grades. The message he gets is clear: Real men don't care about their grade point average.

Even Kevin (now played by Jharrel Jerome) joins in the jeering, though he becomes solicitous – and increasingly  seductive – when he's alone with Chiron.

In one of the film's few violent scenes, Chiron finally stands up to the bullies -- but ends up ruining his own life.

Moonlight ends with an emotionally searing third part propelled by an intense performance by Trevante Rhodes (If Loving You Is Wrong) as Chiron and the great André Holland (Selma, The Knick) as Kevin. It has been a decade since the two have seen each other. Chiron, who has made a shocking, if not surprising, career choice, rolls back into Miami for an emotionally fraught reunion with his friend.

Moonlight is one of the most violent films about the African American experience I've seen, yet it has virtually no on-screen fights. The violence is emotional, and it scars people on a deep, structural level, while infecting others through destructive relationships.

It's certainly not the sort of film you usually get from Hollywood. Big studio pics venture into the ghetto only in nihilistic thrillers or in sentimental life-affirming stories. You know the type: tales about inner-city kids who grow up to become entrepreneurs or great athletes, the fortunate 0.1 percent who make it big in the grand American lottery.

The characters in Jenkins' story are no less unique, no less beautiful as human beings. But like most real people, they don't transcend their roots. They have only so much power to shape their lives outside the sometimes criminally unbalanced economic and social forces that weigh upon them.

Moonlight angers and disturbs. Through his artistry, Jenkins makes us aware how those forces twist the human soul.



4 (Out of four stars)

Parent's guide: R (some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and profanity throughout).

Playing at: Ritz East.