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Glowing in the dark

"Moonlight is sad. I cried during every act. But there's a comfort in the sadness, because you know that what you're feeling is the truth."

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Look, nobody's more introverted than me. If I have to raise my voice to ask a bus driver to open the back door, I'm devastated. I can't bear to make noise, and if I do it takes me two hours to recover. And yet when Moonlight was over and the credits rolled, I was so excited and overwhelmed by what I'd just seen that I almost started clapping in the crowded theater. And I don't think I was the only one who felt that way. We were shy, so no one clapped, but the room felt changed by what we'd seen. Our exhalations had meaning.

Moonlight is written and directed by Barry Jenkins and based on an unproduced play by Tarell McCraney. Jenkins and McCraney grew up in the same Miami housing project in an area called Liberty City, where the film takes place. They didn't know each other at the time, but both consider the film's story as partly autobiographical. Moonlight exists in three distinct acts following a young black kid through childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Different actors play the main character, Chiron, in each segment, but that's not a gimmick. This isn't Cate Blanchett playing Bob Dylan. Chiron doesn't say much, but the actors unite him into one person with their bodies and their eyes.

“Relax. We’re not in a shark movie.”
  • “Relax. We’re not in a shark movie.”

In the first act, we meet Chiron, known at this point as "Little" (Alex Hibbert), as he's running away from bullies in his neighborhood. He hides out in an abandoned dope house where local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds him. The two form a friendship as we learn the circumstances of Chiron's unhappy life. His mother (Naoime Harris) does her best as a single mom, but she's addicted to crack, and Juan is the one selling it to her. There's an overwhelming poetry to the way we discover all of this, and in what the characters say and don't say to each other, in the discordant, perfect score. James Laxton's distinctive cinematography keeps us close to the action as he moves around the characters. His camera makes it impossible for us to forget about their humanity. There's no mention of religion in the film, and yet the effect is somehow deeply spiritual. You can't help but love and pity even the film's villains.

In the second part, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is high-school age, and the bullying has only gotten worse. We see the direction his mother's life has taken and get to know Juan's partner, Teresa (Janelle Monáe).

We also learn more about Chiron's friendship with Kevin, the only other character to be played by three actors (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland). In the first part, Juan gives Chiron some clutch wisdom. "At some point you've got to decide who you gonna be. And let no one make that decision for you." It's good advice, but who can ever follow it? All of us are informed by what we think society wants from us. And what happens to Chiron in the second act defines the person he becomes in the third, to which he's known as "Black" and played by Trevante Rhodes.

I hope I haven't made Moonlight sound intimidating or too deep. Critics love this film, but I fear they may be scaring viewers away by describing it as "unbearably intimate," "profoundly subtle" and "crushingly sad." It is sad. I cried during every act. But there's a comfort in the sadness, because you know that what you're feeling is the truth. I'm in love with these characters. I can't stop thinking about them. And I can't wait to see this movie again.

Moonlight opens at the Roxy Theater Fri., Nov. 18.

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