'Moonlight': A Cinematic Poem Of Love, Loneliness And Coming Out

Oct 21, 2016
Originally published on October 21, 2016 6:13 pm
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The highly-praised movie "Moonlight" opens today in select cities. It's a drama about a black man's coming of age in South Florida, a story of trouble, trauma and unexpected grace. In a moment, we'll hear with actor Mahershala Ali, who provides some of that grace. But first, critic Bob Mondello reviews "Moonlight."

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Chiron is a skinny 10-year-old hiding out from bullies who want to beat him up when he's spotted and rescued by the neighborhood drug dealer.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONLIGHT")

MAHERSHALA ALI: (As Juan) I found him yesterday. He's scared more than anything. He wouldn't tell me where he lived until this morning.

MONDELLO: I hear what you're thinking - frying pan to fire. And in most movies, you'd be right. But the dealer, played with fatherly restraint by Mahershala Ali, rather startlingly becomes the most affirmative figure in Chiron's young life, offering advice that helps bring him out of his shell.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONLIGHT")

ALI: (As Juan) At some point, you got to decide for yourself who you're going to be - can't let nobody make that decision for you.

MONDELLO: Even teaching him to swim.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONLIGHT")

ALI: (As Juan) I got you, I promise you. I'm not going to let you go. Hey, man, I got you.

MONDELLO: Flash forward half a dozen years - Chiron in high school, still being bullied, not leased by his crack-addicted mom.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONLIGHT")

NAOMIE HARRIS: (As Paula) Give me the damn money.

ASHTON SANDERS: (As Chiron) Mama, come on.

HARRIS: (As Paula) Give me the damn money.

SANDERS: (As Chiron) All right, all right.

MONDELLO: But Chiron is also backed up - most of the time, anyway - by his only friend, a kid named Kevin, who knows how to make Chiron feel safe letting down his guard.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOONLIGHT")

JHARREL JEROME: (As Kevin) That breeze feel good as hell, man.

SANDERS: (As Chiron) Yeah, it do.

JEROME: (As Kevin) You know, sometimes around the way where we live, you can catch that same breeze. It just comes through the hood, and it's like everything stop for a second. Everything just gets quiet, you know?

SANDERS: (As Chiron) And it's like all you can hear is your own heartbeat.

JEROME: (As Kevin) It make you want to cry it feels so good.

SANDERS: (As Chiron) You cry?

JEROME: (As Kevin) Nah, it makes me want to.

MONDELLO: A moment of physical intimacy there on the beach confirms something for Chiron. "Moonlight" is both a coming-of-age and a coming-out story. But the world won't let this kid be, so life takes another turn, as does what has by now become an electrifying film.

Director Barry Jenkins tells Chiron's story in three chapters with three differently astonishing actors inhabiting the character - adolescent Alex Hibbert, so shy he can barely speak, teenaged Ashton Sanders, an open wound trying to heal, and buff Trevante Rhodes, camouflaging Chiron's adult vulnerability within his bulked-up body.

"Moonlight," at once delicate and urgent, is based on a play but amounts to a cinematic poem - a staggering take on love and loneliness wrapped in imagery that shimmers like - well, like moonlight. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.