Movie News & Reviews

It’s been called the best movie of the year, but what does ‘Moonlight’ really say about being American?

Alex Hibbert, left, is part of a trio of actors who play the young protagonist in “Moonlight.” Mahershala Ali, right, co-stars in the drama, set in Miami.
Alex Hibbert, left, is part of a trio of actors who play the young protagonist in “Moonlight.” Mahershala Ali, right, co-stars in the drama, set in Miami.

“Moonlight,” an intimate glimpse into one boy’s life growing up black, gay and penniless in a drug-filled 1980s Miami neighborhood, has drawn healthy box office and rapturous critical praise that culminated in a New York Times headline asking, “Is This the Year’s Best Movie?”

Most tellingly, “Moonlight” is a sitter. It’s that rare film that so thoroughly enraptures, saddens and thrills the viewer that it requires sitting through the credits just to collect one’s self. We’re talking a film that inspires sobs audible enough for my companion (who understands) and neighbors down the row (who kind of understand, but shhhh) to hear them, and necessitates a recovery time that lasts until the lights comes up and Tower Theater staff members enter with brooms and dust pans.

A sitter is not to be confused with a movie that contrives to keep you in the theater through the credits to see what Benedict Cumberbatch might get up to in his next Marvel film. A sitter pins you to the seat with emotional power.

During my many years reviewing films, I encountered four previous sitters: “Brokeback Mountain,” in which a pair of Wyoming sheepherders in love are kept apart by 1960s homophobia; “12 Years a Slave,” which recounted the real-life story of a free, 19th-century black man kidnapped into slavery; “Nebraska,” in which a hard-drinking, forgetful senior chases his sweepstakes dreams to his home state, and “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making chronicle of one youngster’s life that showed the actor playing him mature before our eyes.

“Moonlight” – for which director Barry Jenkins took a different yet equally powerful route to showing a boy grow up in front of us, casting three actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) for each distinct act in the life of lead character Chiron (pronounced “Shy-rone”) – is number five.

What makes a sitter? The base level is flawless acting and directing. These are four-star films that captivate throughout, eliminating moments when the viewer’s mind wanders to where she put that empty popcorn bag.

Beauty is a factor. Just as a symphony can bring a music aficionado to tears, cinematography can help undo a movie lover. With the exception of the bare-bones “Boyhood,” all the sitters are gorgeous. “Brokeback” offers sweeping shots of rolling hills and a minimalist-yet-heartstring-tugging guitar score. Steve McQueen, director of “12 Years,” started as a visual artist and offers painterly, expertly composed shots of the antebellum South that stun in their beauty and/or savagery. “Nebraska’s” black-and-white cinematography highlights the literal winter of its main character’s (Bruce Dern) life along with Dern’s shock of white hair.

“Moonlight” was shot for $5 million but looks more expensive. Jenkins’ film takes its title from the unproduced Tarell Alvin McCraney play “In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue.” But the lighting runs more magic hour, during hurricane season.

Cinematographer James Laxton’s Miami looks constantly slightly overcast, the silver tones setting off the pinks and whites of horizon and flowers and the vibrancy of humans. Laxton’s camera lends a similar glow to Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes that indicates to the audience what the character they all play has yet to recognize about himself: He is lit from within.

But looks only count so much. Otherwise, this list would consist entirely of Terrence Malick films.

The five stories’ most striking commonality is placing its characters in conflict with the American ideal of being able to forge one’s own destiny. Though it is to wildly varying degrees, each protagonist is robbed of his autonomy, creating an attendant struggle to regain that autonomy that builds drama.

The struggle is literal, and heinous, in “12 Years,” in which free man, farmer and violinist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped, savagely beaten and forced to hide his education and essential selfhood on the plantation. It is more figurative in “Brokeback,” in which Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) is prevented by society and his own fears from pursuing a same-sex relationship.

Age eliminates agency in the other cases. In “Boyhood,” the juvenile Mason (Ellar Coltrane) must go along for the ride when his mother marries a creep. In “Moonlight,” the young Chiron is at the mercy of his drug-addicted, erratic mother (Naomie Harris), who sometimes taunts him about his more effeminate traits, just as the bullies at school do.

In “Nebraska,” the DMV plays scold with Dern’s character, taking his license and sense of freedom.

Fence in some Americans, and they lash out. But the more interesting ones grow quiet and watchful. The protagonists in the five films cited, either because of nature or circumstance, share a taciturn quality that draws the audience to them. Trying to decipher emotions from slight changes in expression results in a more active, engaged viewing experience than listening to characters chatter on.

Chiron uses the fewest words of any of these characters, but the three actors playing him share an ability to impart strong emotion through their eyes.

Filmmaker Jenkins grew up in the same tough Liberty City Miami neighborhood as playwright McCraney, but didn’t know him until they worked together. Although “Moonlight” is closer to McCraney’s life than Jenkins’, the near-wordlessness is him as a kid, Jenkins told NPR.

“I always felt just a little bit of distance from everyone else, so I kind of kept to myself,” Jenkins said. “When Tarell allowed me to sort of run with the play, I kind of made a very hard decision that (Chiron) was going to emote with his body, and in particular with his eyes, and not so much with his words.”

The depth of Chiron’s still waters shows in a sequence in which he is found, hiding in a drug house, by a man named Juan (Mahershala Ali), a crack dealer with a soft spot for Chiron. Though Chiron barely speaks to Juan and his kind girlfriend (Janelle Monae) after Juan – unsuccessful in trying to get information about where the kid lives – brings him home for dinner, young actor Hibbert shows him taking everything in. Not just the couple’s place, which is nicer and closer to the sea than where he lives, but the possibility that kindness exists in the world.

The lasting image of “Moonlight” is of Sanders, who plays Chiron as a skinny, awkward teen and is the heartbreaking standout within a talented trio of actors, trying to get through another bullying session at school. But neither the eyes, nor the boy, stay down during a schoolyard fight during which Chiron keeps getting up for more. Sanders looks shocked and shaken but determined as Chiron, still wearing his backpack, keeps standing up, not punching back but not quitting, either.

Chiron, as well as his similarly poor and at-risk teenage tormentors, cannot help but remind of the young men at the heart of the current Black Lives Matter movement. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott observed in his rave review, “Moonlight” is “both a disarmingly, at times almost unbearably personal film, and an urgent social document.”

But topicality does not make a film a sitter. Lending cultural context to a work of art is important but also an intellectual exercise that cannot compare, in visceral impact, to seeing the teenage Chiron fill a sink with water and ice so he can submerge his bloody face in it.

The many-times-removed comparisons of a fictional character to real-life events also seems more forced in these days of cellphone videos that deliver the unvarnished gut punch of reality.

What stands out most in the fight sequence is the character’s resilience, a key part to any sitter. I have shed a few tears at movies that, like “Moonlight,” showed children in situations they never should have been in, whether it was a girl from the former Soviet Republic forced into prostitution in the 2002 film “Lilya 4-Ever,” or the far less severe case of a girl forced to choose with which of her divorcing parents (both decent people) she wants to live in the 2011 Iranian film “A Separation.”

These films deeply affected but did not transport, because they lack the uplift quotient that sparks a cathartic release of tears.

It’s a stretch to call the final scene of “Brokeback” – during which Ennis, living alone in a trailer, touches a shirt that once belonged to his beloved – a happy one. But the moment can be interpreted as him privately accepting his sexuality. “12 Years” wraps up in a measured yet hopeful way. “Nebraska” and “Boyhood” end on affirmative notes, and “Moonlight’s” affirmative middle builds to a satisfying conclusion.

Thousands of hours in movie theaters did not just help me determine what is a truly special film, but trained me to expect, in highly emotional works, counterbalancing signs of optimism. Because an insistence on hope is as much a part of the American psyche as the demand for uninterrupted liberty.

Foreign films are far more likely to end on downbeat or open-ended notes. But while my brain embraces ambiguity as a valid artistic choice, my waterworks trigger rejects it.