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‘Moonlight’ review: Visually mesmerizing drama may be year’s best film

Ashton Sanders plays a self-protective teenager searching for

Ashton Sanders plays a self-protective teenager searching for his identity in "Moonlight." Credit: A24 / David Bornfriend

PLOT An African-American boy in a poor Miami neighborhood struggles to accept his sexuality.

CAST Ashton Sanders, Mahershala Ali, André Holland

RATED R (sexuality, language, some violence)


PLAYING AT Manhasset Cinemas, Roosevelt Field 8 and Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington

BOTTOM LINE A deeply personal and visually mesmerizing drama that just might be the year’s best movie.

Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” begins in a familiar way. A Miami drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), patrols his blighted turf with a diamond in his ear and a gun in his waistband. These are the mean streets we’ve seen before, but when Juan befriends a bullied boy named Chiron (Alex Hibbert), we’re forced to rethink our assumptions. Chiron has a question for his new father figure, and it has to do with an ugly name he’s been called.

That name, says Juan, “is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” As for Chiron’s unformed sexuality, Juan tells him not to worry. “You’ll just know.”

“Moonlight” is based on an unproduced work by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the script with Jenkins. It’s a fictionalized amalgam of their similar life stories (both grew up in Miami’s Liberty Square housing complex), and the fact that McCraney is gay while Jenkins is straight makes this film all the more remarkable. The story of a sensitive boy trying to flourish in a hostile world of African-American masculinity, “Moonlight” feels highly personal and universal all at once.

“Moonlight” is broken into three chapters, each a stage in Chiron’s life. The son of a crack addict (Naomi Harris), Chiron grows into a self-protective teenager (Ashton Sanders, wounded and heartbreaking), and then into a hardened drug dealer (Trevante Rhodes, speaking volumes by staying mostly silent). Chiron now walks his block just as Juan used to, but the figure that haunts him is his brazen first lover, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).

Comparisons to Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” will be inevitable: Both films find gay characters in what seem like the least likely places, and both focus on the contrast between life in the open and life in the closet. But where Lee’s movie was a fairly glossy romance, Jenkins’ movie is idiosyncratic and stylized, with dreamy cinematography by James Laxton and a rich soundtrack of soul and hip-hop mixed with Nicholas Britell’s elegant score.

The film’s final act, featuring a wonderful André Holland as the now-grown Kevin, is a masterpiece all on its own. “Moonlight” is the rare movie that doesn’t just show you a life but makes you feel you’ve lived one.

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