The boy stares at the older man, wary yet curious. And right away the man sizes up the pint-sized loner hiding inside an abandoned Liberty City home.
And he does not judge.
The scene, set in the 1980s, happens near the beginning of “Moonlight,” writer-director Barry Jenkins' second feature, adapted from the shelved play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Miami playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. It sets the tone for the vividly rendered coming-of-age story that follows: hard-hitting and raw, yes, but also suffused with an all-encompassing tenderness. It is touched by mercy.
Moments before Chiron, aka Little (Alex Hibbert), meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), he was being chased by kids from school. He covers his ears as best he can from the other boys' banging outside, hoping they would leave him alone. Then there is a brief silence, the first of many in a film that sets itself apart by what it doesn't show than for what it does.
The way Jenkins, who goes on to depict his young protagonist as an adolescent and then as a grown-up, stages that initial encounter between Little and Juan is akin to witnessing a hatchling meeting its father. It soon becomes clear the Cuban-born Juan knows the clammed-up wallflower better than he knows himself. His gold wristwatch in full view, Juan takes this shy boy who is taunted as a sissy by his classmates under his wing, even taking him out on his Chevy Impala for fried chicken and a day on the beach that becomes an impromptu swimming lesson. (French filmmaker Claire Denis would likely approve of cinematographer James Laxton's earthy imagery in these scenes.)
It's a harsh contrast with what the grade-schooler has waiting for him back home: neglect and harsh words from Paula (Naomie Harris), an absent mother who has left her addiction to crack cocaine take over the reins. However, Jenkins seems to say, do not mistake Little's fragility for weakness, or let Paula's demons suggest her maternal instinct has abandoned her. Theirs is a fraught cycle of co-dependency, as complex and layered as it is dysfunctional.
Jenkins, who grew up blocks away from McCraney in Liberty City, also defies expectations by finding the beauty in the unforgiving streets he once called home. He has made a movie of haunting delicacy, one that is eloquent about the nature of violence between black men without appearing to have one hostile bone in its body.
Time passes, and a Chiron, now played by “Straight Outta Compton” star Ashton Sanders, is now mostly staying out of Paula's way. Juan's wife Teresa (the effervescent Janelle Monáe), concerned about his mother's continuing downward spiral, lets the teen crash with her. Chiron remains sullen and walled-off, lest anyone finds out about the way he looks at childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who brags about his sexual conquests yet seems keen to hang with his quiet buddy.
Jenkins is unable to elicit performances from the actors who play Chiron's longtime tormentors that measure up to Sanders and Jerome. But the more awkwardly executed moments in “Moonlight'”s second act fall by the wayside when the film arrives to the scene that gives it its title: two boys, warm sand and wandering hands, all set to the soft lap of waves. You almost feel the warm breeze brushing against their bodies.
If the scene feels a tad too discreet for its own good, that's a quality that only becomes problematic later in the film. This rendezvous, shot mostly from the actors' backs in a way that's reminiscent of a similar scene in Pedro Almodóvar's “Bad Education,” is meant to be furtive, gone almost as soon as it took flight, so to speak.
What ensues takes “Moonlight” into more familiar coming-of-age territory. And yet the film never feels clichéd, because by the time Chiron faces the consequences of his (rash) actions, you feel them as if you were experiencing them through his eyes. Whereas other chronicles of African-American life allow viewers to settle into the role of an outside observer, Jenkins eschews such a passive approach. Instead, he gently yet firmly forces you to walk in Chiron's shoes. The filmmaker's gaze is clear-eyed yet compassionate, and for a self-described straight ally, strikingly queer. This narrative may fall under the “so specific it's universal” category, but at the same time, Jenkins seems to proclaim, this is very much a gay film. Deal with it.
Which makes it a little frustrating, in the film's final third, when Jenkins opts for a relatively chaste resolution for McCraney's moonlit boys. Chiron, played as an adult by the steely Trevante Rhodes, is now living in Atlanta, pursuing a line of work that suggests the past retains a strong hold on him. A pointed conversation prompts a road trip back to South Florida to call upon an old friend. That climactic reunion, shot in Jimmy's Eastside Diner, is the film's centerpiece. It plays like “Brief Encounter” as remade by Wong Kar-Wai, and it's every bit as enchanting as that combination sounds.
The diner's Tiffany lamps and retro red and white curtains make for the ideal setting, a casual nighttime sit-down fueled by a decade's worth of longing … and “Hello Stranger” playing on the jukebox. (Though, I'm sorry to report, the real Jimmy's doesn't have a jukebox and, to my knowledge, doesn't serve the Cuban dish prepared with care for Chiron. It's not even open at night.)
It all leads to a shattering confession that hit this critic like a ton of bricks. Kudos to Rhodes for the vulnerability he brings into play to pull off this moment. And then “Moonlight” vanishes into the ether, wisely choosing not to reveal too much about the characters' future. I only wished that the hopeful suggestion it does make included a little more body contact. By taking lust out of the equation when all signs point to it as the release the characters need, Jenkins displays a reticence that this often sublime film otherwise manages to utilize more effectively elsewhere.
It's a minor quibble, but one that in no way prevents me from embracing this staggering achievement from a creative team that's certain to be awards-bound. They have made a wonderful film.
“Moonlight” is now showing at O Cinema Wynwood, AMC Aventura 24 and Regal South Beach. It opens nationwide Nov. 4. Go see it, already!