BY THOMAS BREEN
During the first chapter of Barry Jenkins's coming-of-age drama Moonlight, a black child nicknamed Little (Alex R. Hibbert) learns how to swim. He's fled the home of a loving but narcissistic mother, and found unlikely refuge with the drug dealer who enables his mom's addiction. The dealer is gentle with Little: he wades into the ocean water with him, leaning him back into the waves as if conducting a baptism. The two are softened by the blue darkness, a rare moment of peace and connection for a man and a boy hardened by street life.
Every important moment in Little's life takes place on the beach: learning to swim, his first sexual encounter, a re-connection with a long, lost love. The sand, waves, and moonlight transform each slice-of-life experience into one of lyrical transcendence.
Moonlight is first and foremost a movie about a young, gay black man growing up in Miami, Florida. Jenkins follows Little through three chapters of his young adulthood: as a child caught between two co-dependent families; as a teenager, now known by his birth name Chiron (Ashton Sanders), brooding and confused and angry over what makes him different from other high school students; and as a hardened Atlanta drug dealer, known by his street name Black (Trevante Rhodes), who abruptly decides to drive back to Florida to re-connect with the only man who's ever touched him.
Jenkins provides a phenomenal texture to each extended moment in Little's life, allowing the audience to experience the same physical sensations felt by our acutely sensitive protagonist (the lapping of the water, the ocean breeze in his face, the sand between his fingers). Jenkins's will occasionally circle around a scene, or track patiently from behind, underscoring just how many little details make up the world immediately around us. For a young man like Chiron, so attuned to his surroundings and in such turmoil over who he is at his core, every one of those details matter.
For Moonlight is also a study of double consciousness, such a fundamental experience for many minorities in America, in which someone is required to live two lives at once: one for yourself and one for everyone around you. The scenes by the beach chronicle those rare moments when the two identities merge, when who you are elides with who you present as, when vulnerability leads to connection instead of to abuse. They are moments captured in and illuminated by moonlight, strange and safe and nonjudgmental. For Little, the turbulent times outside of that moonlight, when those two personae are in such violent conflict, are almost forgotten in the nighttime breeze.
But they are not a bad dream. Nor are the scenes in the moonlight a good dream. They are all real, all part of this young man's life, and Moonlight captures those moments in all of their lyrical honesty better than just about any other movie this year.