Films about the American “inner city,” typically featuring the stresses of urban
black life, have waxed and waned in US cinema, with the occasional striking effort (e.g. “Precious” and “Fruitvale Station”) among facile comedies and action flicks. A new drama in this sphere proves as absorbing as any in recent memory. At its heart, “Moonlight” is a moving meditation on the “inner life” of its protagonist Chiron as much as it is a depiction of an inner city.
“Moonlight” is a triad covering Chiron’s life: his profound loneliness as a taciturn
nine-year-old, his continuing marginalization as a bullied 16-year-old but with a first taste of love, and his re-creation as a buff yet solitary drug dealer in his twenties. His world is circumscribed by the streets of Liberty City, a black neighborhood in North Miami, a world well known to the filmmakers.
Act One finds Chiron (Alex Hibbert) in a barren apartment with single mom Paula (Naomie Harris) who is sliding into drug dependence while her child (derogatorily called “Little” by his classmates) suffers ostracism for lack of any gumption. Only one classmate, chatty Kevin (Jaden Piner), encourages him to stand up for himself. He is then somewhat surprisingly taken in by a local hustler, Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) who show him respect and ease him out of his shell.
Act Two finds Chiron (Ashton Sanders) still with Paula, now lost to crack, while
he is pilloried at school for his latent homosexuality. He remains solitary, though the teenage Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) remains a fitful friend who, on a warm beach night, introduces him to sex. Yet even Kevin turns against him in a put-up fight, wherein Chiron takes a beating that pushes him to a frightful revenge against a classmate.
The third segment finds him in Atlanta ten years on—now with the street name
“Black” (Trevante Rhodes) -- having served time but now running drugs as Juan had done years before, still stoic and still alone. A surprise phone call from Kevin (André Holland), now working as a cook back home, triggers a desire to see his old friend, whom he encounters at the latter’s restaurant where dormant memories surface and
lead to a catharsis.
Let me now praise Barry Jenkins, the writer/director of “Moonlight” for his wholly
rounded portrayal of a soul at key points in his life. In adapting playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s drama “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins has elicited three wondrous and controlled performances from his three distinct Chirons. Young Hibbert faces his raw world with the sad mask of the defeated, aching to belong. You want to adopt him. Teen-aged Sanders, willowy and wary and tormented by the first stirrings of his sexuality, stares blankly at the world until he finally explodes with rage. Finally, big Black, as played by the imposing Rhodes, appears as a quiescent giant with a life going nowhere. The actor’s very different physical presence may seem to contradict the waifish nature of the younger Chirons, but Rhodes and Jenkins overcomes this apparent anomaly by maintaining a beautifully consistent tone of personality for his three different actors. They share the same inner humanity.
Naomie Harris, a British beauty best known for adorning Bond movies, is superb
here as a wanton woman capable of explosive cruelty and aching neediness. Only a touching late scene where Chiron visits her in rehab mitigates the throes of her addiction. Ali (best known for his role as Remi in “House of Cards”) comes on as the classic dealer/badass who then surprises as a tender mentor to the cowed young boy, an unlikely father figure who introduces him to a calm, domestic life, a swim in the ocean, and a rigorous honesty about himself. His street-tough demeanor makes his affectionate attentions all the more striking.
Besides the splendid guidance of his actors, Jenkins excels in his imaginative
use of the medium. His film (cinematography by James Laxton) shows distinctive phases: the first captures Miami’s sun-washed brightness with a bouncing hand-held camera and tight close-ups, while the second makes much of several claustrophobic interiors (at home and at school) ending with a dramatic headlong finish. His last act turns elegiac, with a languorous camera and a soft night ambiance, all carefully composed. All of these moods are enhanced by a nervous, chittering string music track (by Nicholas Britell) beautifully responsive to the action. Never is that music more effective than when Britell underscores a kid’s lively playground tussle with an ethereal Mozart soprano solo.
“Moonlight” gives weight and substance to one of society’s forgotten souls and
does it with sincerity and panache: a wonder.
(“Moonlight is rated “R” and runs 111 minutes.)
Photo Credit: Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali appear in“Moonlight.” Photo by David Bornfriend, courtesy of A24 Pictures.
Sometimes creative acts come in twos. Just last July, your friendly reviewer
discussed in the Hill Rag the film “Indignation,” based on a Philip Roth novel, while noting attempts by Hollywood over the years to adapt other Roth works. Voila! Mere months later and another Roth adaptation appears, “American Pastoral,” based on the writer’s critically acclaimed and Pulitzer-Prize-winning 1997 novel. The movie, directed and starring Ewan McGregor, is an ambitious effort that inevitably falls short of attaining the historicism and symbolism of the original novel.
In this version, scripted by John Romano, the core story is told in flashback
during a 19990’s Newark, N.J. high school reunion where Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans) informs narrator Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) about Levov’s just-deceased brother, Seymour (nicknamed “Swede” for his blond locks). Swede was a Jewish golden boy, a star athlete and Marine who married the town beauty Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), had a sweet daughter Meredith (Dakota Fanning), smoothly took over his father Lev’s (Peter Riegert) thriving glove business in Newark, and settled comfortably into the upscale suburb of Old Rimrock.
The film’s basic narrative picks up in early 1968 with the Vietnam War heating
up. Though Swede’s life seems serenely unaffected by it, his 16-year-old daughter, nicknamed Merry, is so embittered by America’s actions that she acts out by setting a bomb in the local post office, killing its one inhabitant, then swiftly goes underground. Dawn is crushed by her daughter’s act but slowly accedes to it, while the distraught Levov begins a dogged pursuit to both find his daughter and to learn the reasons for her actions. The rest of the film is defined by that pursuit, while his life and his marriage spiral ever downward.
The telling of this fable of the 60’s has its poignancy; Merry is eventually found,
and her revelations and the world to which she has succumbed are worse than Swede could have imagined. Yet much of this narrative of his tenacious search for his daughter is less than compelling.
Swede, in McGregor’s impersonation, is earnest but repetitive, simply ringing
standard changes on the stricken father trying to fathom his daughter and who—in the end—cannot. He is left hanging because the act of Merry is basically inexplicable, and the film can offer no insights into her conversion. Connelly certainly scores high on the beauty queen scale, but her character is underwritten, and a later hospital-bed confession of the emptiness of her marriage comes out of nowhere. Poor Fanning lacks the screen time to show the development of her radicalism, so her bitter denunciation of her father seems just willful and utterly unearned. Worse of all is activist Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry) a stereotypical radical and underground colleague of Merry’s who offers a disquieting and prurient come on to Swede. Perhaps best of all, however, is the appearance of veteran Riegert as the sardonic Lev, the lone source of humor in a film almost wholly devoid of it.
With “American Pastoral” we may be witnessing again the perpetual dilemma of
adapting a complex and high-minded novel into convincing cinematic terms. The story itself may have much to chew on, but that doesn’t mean that it has much taste.
(The film is rated “R” for mature themes and runs 126 mins.).
Photo Credit: Ewan McGregor as “Swede” Levov in “American Pastoral.” Photo Credit: Richard Foreman.