Moonlight is a beautifully nuanced gay coming-of-age tale

Going into an event like the Toronto International Film Festival, it's easy to predict a few of the hot-ticket hits — the movies that built major buzz at other festivals, or that come with particularly high-powered cast-and-crew lineages. And then there films like Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, an artfully intense coming-of-age story which started as a promising word-of-mouth highlight and grew into TIFF's breakout must-see movie, surpassing the demand of much bigger budgeted, starry premieres. Even after two extra press-and-industry screenings were rushed onto the schedule, the regularly scheduled IMAX screening in one of the festival's largest theaters was crammed to capacity as well. That's a big response for a small drama about a black kid coming to terms with his sexuality in abstract, internal ways.

Moonlight has a minimal plot, focused more on conversation and observation than big events. Writer-director Barry Jenkins (making his second feature after Medicine For Melancholy) makes striking choices throughout the film, both in the story he tells and the way he visualizes it. Inspired by the short play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Jenkins splits his story into three sections, with his shy protagonist Chiron navigating masculinity and identity at ages 10, 16, and 30-something. In each of the chapters, he struggles with his mother's addictions, with his peers' impressions of him, and with his feelings toward a friend named Kevin. And in each chapter, he finds in a patient, caring outsider what he can't find in his own internal compass.

One of Moonlight's remarkable strengths is how completely it avoids preaching, after-school messaging, or pat cinematic answers. When bullies assault 10-year-old Chiron (nicknamed Little, and played with impeccable self-contained control by Alex Hibbert), he takes some comfort from a neighborhood drug dealer, Juan (House Of Cards' Mahershala Ali) and his endlessly kind girlfriend Teresa (singer Janelle Monáe). Juan answers Little's blunt, desperate questions about sexuality in considerate ways, but he has no way of fixing the black community's codes about masculinity and perceived toughness, or the way children pick on outsiders. At best, he can supply a non-judgmental attitude and some fatherly advice: "At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. You can't let nobody make that decision for you."

Everything about Jenkins' direction is unconventional, startling, and appealing

In the second segment, when Chiron has shed his nickname and grown into a lanky, vulnerable teenager (Ashton Sanders), he starts to make those identity decisions, in ways that profoundly change his life. For him, there are only two ways to deal with relentless violence from his peers: caving under, or fighting back — and he comes to learn that both ways are dangerous dead-ends. And in the third segment, with Chiron as a powerfully muscled, thug-identified dealer operating under the street name Black (Trevante Rhodes), he's picked an identity and worked hard to develop it, but it still remains a disguise.

Everything about the way Jenkins frames this story is unconventional, startling, and appealing. Characters in Chiron's Miami neighborhood blast the expected hip-hop out of cars with the windows rolled down, but Jenkins sets a grab-ass ball game to a dreamy movement from Mozart's "Vesperae Solennes De Confessore," and draws as much on Caetano Veloso and composer Nicholas Britell as he does on Goodie Mob and Erykah Badu. The musical landscape in Moonlight is as diverse as Miami itself, and Britell's score in particular gives the film a haunted but immediate quality that underscores the constant threat of violence without wringing it into melodramatic excess.

Jenkins also lets the film's rhythm stretch out into long silences, or into tense, sustained conversations. Chiron's relationship with his friend Kevin (also played by three different actors at three different ages) is always a matter of negotiation and careful tactical fencing, and Jenkins lets those talks stretch out in real time, full of uncomfortable, needy pauses and cautious steps forward. Like Carol and Brokeback Mountain before it, Moonlight conveys the pain of the continuing social stigma around homosexuality, the search for freedom and love, and the constant struggle to communicate and drop personal barriers. Moonlight captures a lot of fighting — between Chiron and his drug-addict mother (Naomie Harris), between him and his abusive peers — but it's most keenly about his fight with himself. When Juan first encounters him, hiding in a drug cache in an abandoned apartment complex, Little is nearly mute, radiating distrust and determination to stay hard by staying silent. It's a defense that stays with him throughout his life.

It's rare that such an internal film feels this big

That reticence of its protagonist is Moonlight's only real downside, in that Jenkins is sometimes myopically invested in Chiron's interiority. (An exquisite exception is that Mozart-backed ball game, which shows how immersive and haunting Jenkins' film can be when it's taking in the larger world around Chiron.) There is also a lot that is lost in the leaps between time periods — Juan's fate, the major movements in Chiron's mother's life, an entire re-creation of identity. At just shy of two hours, the film feels like an abbreviated urban version of Boyhood that should have been as long as Richard Linklater's film. There's still so much to explore about these characters, and what makes it to the screen doesn't always feel like the most satisfying or relevant moments.

But what does make it to the screen is unforgettable. Moonlight resembles Brokeback Mountain and Carol in its lush staging, intensely internal performances, and treatment of the gay experience in a very specific milieu. It's also reminiscent of David Gordon Green's George Washington in its visual lyricism, and its conflict between poetic feeling and harsh reality in looking at poor black neighborhoods. Moonlight is hypnotic not just as a character study, or as a coming-of-age story. It's hypnotic as a performance piece, full of flawless portrayals of a kid figuring out who he is, not just in relation to other people, but in relation to himself. It's rare to see such an internal film look and feel this big — in the cinematography, in the sprawl of its world, and in the instant acclaim that's rightfully greeted it.

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