That description begins to explain the character named Chiron in Moonlight, easily one of the best films of 2016 and the most poignant love story since Brokeback Mountain. We first meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as a sensitive 8-year-old, maneuvering the mean streets of Miami — trying to avoid bullies as well as his cracked-out mom (Naomie Harris, who’s amazing). The local drug kingpin, Juan (Mahershala Ali), takes notice of Chiron, and, with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae, who’s revelatory), becomes a surrogate father, even as Chiron wonders whether, as the other kids say, he may be “a faggot.” He’s not, Juan insists — he might be gay, but that’s not the same. He has strength.
The remainder of Moonlight — divided into two more chapters, with Chiron as a teenager (Ashton Sanders, pictured) and a young man (Trevante Rhodes) — is about Chiron coming to terms with those competing identities. Can he be a strong black man and in love with his best friend?
It would be nice to say that Moonlight plays out predictably along that course, but the truth is anything but. Writer-director Barry Jenkins fashions a surprising and sensitive and profound journey for this character and those in his orbit. Like Chiron, it’s tough and dense, but in search of the tender essence inside.
The performances are uniformly intense and heartbreaking. This is a film that dares to challenge its audience to dispel expectations and discover humanity in unlikely places. It’s as if Boyz n the Hood were recast with Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist. Moonlight is the unmissible film of the fall.
Five stars. Opens tomorrow. Read our interview with star Trevante Rhodes in Friday’s Dallas Voice.