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Open-hearted and immensely moving, the luminous "Moonlight" allows its audience to become part of a young, gay black man's journey to find himself

Film review: "Moonlight" 

We as a nation aren't exactly in a good place at the moment; people are disillusioned, angry, sad, and things don't show signs of improving any time soon. As humanity consistently finds new ways to divide itself, it feels that we're only growing more and more frightened: of ourselves, of each other, and what the future might hold.

In troubled times we often turn to art for an escape, but more critically, art can also reflect and shape the way we think -- it can challenge our preconceived notions and make us view the world in a new light. Roger Ebert famously said, "The movies are like machines that generate empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears." They force an audience to relate to others even when there's no obvious commonality; bonded only by our shared humanity.

Open-hearted and immensely moving, the luminous "Moonlight" allows its audience to become part of a young, gay black man's journey to find himself. Only the second feature from writer-director Barry Jenkins (following "Medicine For Melancholy" all the way back in 2008), "Moonlight" is also one of the best films of the year.

Based on the play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the story incorporates elements taken from his personal experience as well as that of Jenkins (both grew up in Miami's Liberty City housing projects where "Moonlight" is set). It follows the life of Chiron, picking up at three critical points in his life: childhood, as a teenager, then finally as an adult. In the first section, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is known as "Little," a nickname given to him by the schoolmates who relentlessly bully him. Withdrawn and shy, he's a target because those around sense that he might be gay, even if he doesn't yet understand what that means.

Hiding out from his bullies in an abandoned apartment building, Little is discovered by a local drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). Treating the boy with a disarming gentleness, he brings Little home to his girlfriend Teresa (singer Janelle Monáe, warm and affectionate in her feature debut). They show him kindness when the young boy needs it most, and over time Juan becomes a father figure to the young boy. The couple offer a respite from Little's mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), a nurse who slowly drifts from casual drug use into the depths of addiction to crack cocaine.

We next pick up with Chiron (Ashton Sanders) as a teenager. His only friend is a loquacious boy named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), and he's still isolated. As Paula has descended further into addiction, it's clear that his childhood has taken a toll, and the wounds run deep.

In the last chapter of the film, Chiron has grown up. He's now going by the name "Black" (Trevante Rhodes), and is now living in Atlanta and dealing drugs. He's hardened both mentally and physically, his muscles and armor built to protect and shield himself from the world. He's transformed himself, constructing a new identity for himself based on what he's come to believe being a man really means. But an unexpected phone call sends Black journeying back home to Miami to grapple with his past, his relationship with his mother, and just maybe, to reconnect with Kevin (now played by the magnetic André Holland).

It's hard to talk about the story without sounding somewhat reductive. On its face, this tale is a familiar one, but the details and the way Jenkins burrows inside his protagonist sets it apart. Though it involves drugs, incarceration, and the ever-present threat of violence, "Moonlight" is not a gritty tale of life on the streets; the result is much more impressionistic. It's reminiscent of "Boyhood" in depicting how events in our life send us down certain paths, and how they shape the person we ultimately become. Jenkins gives his film a heightened, almost dreamlike aesthetic: cinematographer James Laxton cranks up the color and saturation, while the evocative musical score by Nicholas Britell provides the beat.

It's a testament to Jenkins direction and his ability with actors that the entire ensemble is extraordinary. Most remarkable are the three actors portraying Chiron: they don't much look alike, but their performances create the throughline for the entire film. Despite the physical changes, there's a clear connection as Sanders and then Rhodes each convey how remnants of Chiron's younger self are present in the older. Through downcast eyes and tiny gestures, they show us the guarded heart at the center of a wounded young man.

Naomie Harris is excellent in a role that could easily tip into cliché. Both Jenkins and McCraney's mothers struggled with addiction, and her character is informed by their real-life experiences. The same goes for Mahershala Ali, who finds the truth at the heart of each of his character.

Both intimate and expansive, "Moonlight" is exhilarating filmmaking. Immediate and achingly emotional, it offers what, at their very best, movies can provide better than any other art form: a deeply felt sense of empathy. We might not necessarily share Chiron's experiences, but we understand them. Above all, the film is a beautiful and heartfelt plea for compassion, and that feels exactly like what the world could use more of right now.

Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of the documentary "Gimme Danger," about influential rock band The Stooges.

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