Monday 13 February 2017

River of dreams: "Moonlight"

Tellingly, it begins and ends with scenes in which the protagonist comes to be asked who he is. Moonlight, which could be sold as anything from the African-American Boyhood to a 21st century Great Expectations, has running through it an inquiry into just what a young black man might be, and might be allowed to be, in modern America - or in the America of 2016, at least, which one suspects (fears?) is likely to be markedly different from the America of 2017. It could stand as a new American dream, or as a requiem for what we may have just lost as one administration gives way to the next. Either way, Barry Jenkins' second full feature as director is a supremely moving experience, one that feels defining, significant, special - perhaps a little more special than many of its fellow awards nominees.

We first find Chiron, the meek and put-upon young Floridian at the film's centre, playing hide-and-seek in a disused apartment block: the camera has to look for him - really look - but he's there. It's in these less than promising circumstances that our latter-day foundling is taken under the wing of a local gangbanger, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Decades of Dickens and 'hood cinema might lead us to suspect Chiron is being recruited to run drugs, guns or worse; this is exactly the concern of his loving yet addled crack addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris), helpless in her own way. Yet the older man turns out to be a repository of useful survival techniques - a replacement for the father the boy has apparently never known - and more concerned with keeping Chiron out of trouble than getting him into it. As the ocean laps against Miami's shores, and time goes by, it becomes clear that this boy is also a buoy, bobbing around at the mercy of the elements, and the uncertainty in the film - which is the same uncertainty shared by any parent looking at their child, and which those audiences who gazed at Antoine Doinel on the beach at the end of The 400 Blows will equally recognise - is which way he will be carried: towards crime, salvation, or watery oblivion?

That fluidity is central to Moonlight's effect: although drawn from pre-existing material (Tarell Alvin McCraney's autobiographical stage drama In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), absolutely nothing about it appears to be set in stone. Jenkins emerged from the loose, improvisatory mumblecore movement - he made 2008's admired Medicine for Melancholy - and he retains a knack for rerouting what would elsewhere play as conventional set-ups so as to move his audience into more striking and affecting areas. Yes, Moonlight is another coming-of-age movie, one that carries us, over its 111 minutes, from innocence to experience and a degree of self-knowledge, but its tactics are signalled as early as the opening sequence. This looks like just another ghetto scene, with Juan pulling up to the kerb, stereo blazing, to check in with one of his dope-slinging minions - but soon the camera pulls focus to follow the scurrying Chiron, racing past on his way to find his hiding spot. Right from the off, Jenkins trusts his audience to go with the flow: we will have three chapters to navigate, each advancing this story - this life - several years, each with a new actor (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) playing Chiron at a different stage of his development.

This latter is typical of a laudably economical directorial approach, geared not just towards cutting against viewer expectations, but also cutting to the quick, distilling this story to its essence. Richard Linklater spent eleven years getting the boy in Boyhood from here to there; Jenkins uses just under two hours, with three young leads who prove as malleable as clay. The water, water everywhere - that which Chiron bathes and learns to swim in; that besides which he has his first sexual experience; that to which he is continually drawn - gives Jenkins one clear means of moulding and shaping this character: the sculpted form of Trevante Rhodes (as the gymbunny Chiron of the closing chapter) is its own pay-off, presenting us with a man trying to fortify himself against all the turbulence of this world, to make himself invulnerable to what he's going through, without realising what else that might shut out. (One unexpected cinematic influence: the early work of François Ozon, where water was again a mollifying presence.) What we're being shown isn't a series of plot points, rather formative (even Eureka) moments, markers on the way to being a man: a casual dinnertable conversation in which the young Chiron first learns what it means to be called a "faggot"; the teenage Chiron's revenge on one of his aggressors; a watershed night on a moonlit beach.

As in Jeff Nichols' recent Loving, we come to realise that the most generous and compassionate thing a filmmaker can do for his characters is strip out the clutter and crutches that industry lore and screenwriting handbooks have insisted movies should have, and instead allow them the room simply to breathe and be. What's truly special about Moonlight is that it gets so much else in: a treatise on the importance of parenting and mentoring in determining the course of a child's life, a lesson in coming to terms with one's sexuality within an innately macho culture. (I can imagine the film becoming a source of immense comfort for any teenagers, black or otherwise, who are struggling to reconcile themselves with the nature of their own desires.) For the most rewarding experience, however, you should approach Moonlight not as a locked-on Best Picture nominee, as the marketing men and women would position it, but as a heartfelt expression of feeling; not as a lecture, but a series of immensely eloquent gestures. For starters, consider the way all three incarnations of the generally taciturn, introspective Chiron hold themselves with the same, 50 Cent-like combination of clenched jaw and parted lips, as though waiting - or waiting for the permission - to speak. Jenkins gives this boy a voice, and - at the last - something worth saying. The question now is a simple yet urgent one: who's listening?

Moonlight opens in selected cinemas from Friday.   

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