Moonlight ★★★★½

One of many bold and smart moves made by director Barry Jenkins in Moonlight is his use of Caetano Veloso's "Cucurrucucú Paloma", the seductive rendition of a popular folk song that's also been used to similar ends by queer-focused filmmakers Pedro Almodóvar and Wong Kar-wai. This is only Jenkins' second feature, and in anyone else's hands, this audacious musical choice—at odds with both the film's nervous symphony of strings and R&B/hip-hop soundtrack—would strike as a misstep. But in this context of a queer identity's long suppression finally peeking out from behind the clouds, it functions like a deeply respectful coda to the liberating desire so central to the work of the masters that Jenkins clearly knows and loves. More importantly, his tenacious storytelling, a remarkable gift for getting disarmingly intimate performances, and a formidable visual elegance predicated on peeling back layered emotions all promise he'll easily earn that reference, as well as an eventual seat at their table.

Moonlight is a rare beacon in an often very white, predetermined gay-indie landscape, and it illuminates as such from any path one chooses to follow: as a gay narrative of self-acceptance, as a deconstruction of masculinity and machismo, as empathy for drug addiction's everlasting ripple effect, and especially as a loving portrait of what it means to grow up black in an impoverished America. But for a film setting out to wrestle with all of this—and as it also wrestles within one man, no less—Jenkins keeps these histrionic forces restrained and grounded, and it is Chiron who’s placed front and center. He's a fully drawn and astonishingly realized character spanning three actors in three distinct acts, each compounding the hardships previously weathered behind the despairing gaze of the next performance.

Chiron starts as "Little”, a boy whose defiant silence against school bullies, an addict mother, and the neighborhood dealer offering the best of supportive intentions is ultimately broken by his own blunt questioning of what it means to be the slur his peers use to hurt him. That shame will retain its grip, but it’s under the titular glow one night on the beach where the teenage Chiron first explores this sexuality with his only friend Kevin, a pivotal scene so thoughtfully executed it becomes less about sex and more about healing a soul long deprived of attention. Ashton Sanders’ embodiment of Chiron is the wounded heart of this story and possibly its greatest, his masterful balance of few words and fear in every twitch of his body language is often too much to bear. It eventually is, and his violent breaking point results in his arrest and the dramatic change into “Black”, his adult self that predictably emulates the sole example of unlawful manhood afforded him in his youth.

This seamless casting and performative consistency across a single figure— continually and gently forecasting his future while echoing his buried past—is what makes Moonlight so impressive. By the end, Chiron is understood as a set of necessary choices that give painful complexity to a flat media stereotype, choices making us understand why survival and an image take precedence over the privilege of getting to be yourself. Jenkins is after my own heart with a film insisting on the circularity of time, always bringing ashore the unresolved, both good and bad. The good for Chiron comes on those first notes of Veloso’s song upon his return to where it all started, in which those two friends ripped apart by circumstance are dumbfounded to see each other again, and what kind of man each of them have become. Black may now be big, but he’s still just as quiet and hesitant as when he was Little, and if the whole thrust of Jenkins’ efforts aim to make Chiron’s softly but courageously spoken conclusion ring with the resounding depth of the whole film, he has succeeded beautifully.