Chiron reveals very little about himself. He's wary by nature, seen often with bowed head and hunched shoulders. He's grown up in a place where his trust is broken every day, where he has to hide who he is every minute (not that it works). By the time he reaches adulthood, he'll have pretended to be someone else for years, and it'll take a small miracle for him to change that.
This is the heart of "Moonlight," one of 2016's best and most beautiful films. Eight years (far too long) since his underseen debut "Medicine for Melancholy," director Barry Jenkins returns with a story that shares that earlier film's alienation, specificity and hard-won optimism while displaying a great leap forward in his formal skill. Jenkins tells the story of a gay African-American boy from childhood to early adulthood with a musicality that's all too rare in American films.
The film is broken into three segments; in the first, "Little," the bullied young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) finds a father figure in Juan (Mahershala Ali), only to find that he's the drug dealer responsible for his mother's (Naomie Harris) addiction. In the second, "Chiron," teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) has a first romantic encounter with his sole friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), before being betrayed. Finally, "Black" sees adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now a drug dealer himself, reuniting with his childhood friend (Andre Holland).
Where "Medicine for Melancholy" was desaturated to the point of near black-and-white, "Moonlight" sees Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton making spectacular use of color throughout. In Chiron's first night at Juan's home, they emphasize the bright whiteness of the sheets on the bed and Chiron's shirt, acting as a heavenly haven from a painful world. In a series of scenes on the beach, the blueness of the water, the brightness of the sky in the day, the blueish hues of the sand at night are equally rhapsodic. This contrasts heavily with Chiron's environment: a beaten up, cramped apartment that feels smaller still when his mother's troubles are taken into account, a school that traps him with his most virulent bullies.
More impressive still is how Jenkins shoots his actors, choreographing impressive (yet never ostentatious) circular pans that show characters taking in their environments, or slowly tracking over to one character as they speak, taking in how others react to them. There's a patience to the film's movements that speaks to how gradually Chiron must be won over. Taking cues from Wong Kar-wai ("In the Mood for Love") and Claire Denis ("Beau Travail"), Jenkins showcases his actors' gestures — a mentor putting his hand on a boy's shoulders, a hand driven into the sand during a moment of passion — in a way that magnifies the actual feeling, both emotionally and literally. No film this year has a more tactile sense of touch, in a case where contact matters the most.
The actors respond to Jenkins' sensitivity, each giving a rich performance that brings nuance to characters that could have been stereotypes in lesser films. Harris has never been better than as Paula, an affectionate mother whose addiction pushes her to be cruel. A scene in which a strung-out Paula recognizes her son through bleary eyes, attempting kindness while acknowledging the pain she's caused him, is quiet in its desperation, a reminder of how little either has.
As Juan, Mahershala Ali gives a performance of remarkable subtlety and grace that's surprising even before taking into account his character's occupation. In his best scene, Ali responds to Chiron's question about an anti-gay slur with a measured pause, trying to weigh how to best answer without hurting the boy. It's a moment of uncommon kindness made painful by Chiron's realization that the man who's treated him the best is the same one responsible for his mother's suffering, with Juan's all-too-visible shame registering like the sound of a drum even as his voice is barely audible.
Perhaps most impressive are the six actors playing Chiron and Kevin at various ages, creating two near-seamless performances of perpetual caution and laid-back charm. The final sequences between Rhodes and Holland are suffused with regret and hope, barely-repressed desire and fear. We've seen a quiet kid turn himself into a caricatured impression of his more complicated mentor, only for Rhodes to reveal the boy hiding in a hardened exterior. He's been told that only he can decide who he's going to be, but it takes the touch of another for him to allow himself a chance to find out who he is.