Kish and I are continuing our quest to watch the Academy Award Best Picture nominees. On Sunday we screened Moonlight at the Drexel, and I was still thinking about the movie hours later, amidst all of the Super Bowl hoopla. It’s the kind of film that worms its way into your guts and sticks around, forcing you to think about it.
Moonlight tells the three-part story of a quiet little boy — known variously as “Little,” Chiron, and “Black” — who grows up in a poor, drug-infested part of Miami. His father is long gone, and his mother is on a downhill slide into drugs. He’s relentlessly bullied by other kids, his mother (beautifully played by best supporting actress nominee Naomie Harris) smokes crack, brings strange men into their apartment, takes his money, and plays all kinds of mind games with him, and he’s just fending for himself and clinging to a really terrible life. He’s got no chance for a safe, secure, “normal” existence. It’s a brutal tale to watch, and I ended up feeling as sorry for this young man as I’ve ever felt for any movie character in any film I’ve ever watched. The actors who play this character as a boy and a teenager — Alex R. Hibbert and Ashton Sanders — are flat-out brilliant.
But even amidst the terrible reality on the mean streets of Miami, the young man encounters kindness. A drug dealer named Juan (played by best supporting actor nominee Mahershala Ali) befriends him, feeds him, and waits out his silence. (The scene where Juan teaches “Little” to swim — and to trust another person, just a bit — is a beautiful little vignette.) A young woman gives him a safe place to stay whenever his mother orders him out of the house. And he makes a connection with a classmate that turns out to be a lasting one. But those few happy moments are overwhelmed by the horror, and fear, and routine betrayal that are a part of this kid’s everyday experience.
By the time we get to the third segment of the movie, Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) is grown, has moved to Atlanta, and has become a hardass drug dealer with gold teeth inserts. When an unexpected phone call brings him back to Miami, to see his mother and interact with his past, what will he find? We just desperately want something good to happen to this wounded person who really never had a chance. We get only a partial answer, and we leave the theater wondering: what will the rest of this young man’s life be like?
Even a few days later, I still wonder. How many movies have that kind of staying power?