Movie review: 'Moonlight'

Best picture winner asks difficult questions of itself and its audience

Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches little Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) how to swim.
Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches little Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) how to swim.

What is it that defines a man, a real man? Aside from the obvious symbols that ultimately mean nothing, can a man just be? Can a man honestly respond to his deep-down nature because it is who he is?

The film, “Moonlight,” asks these questions of its audience and of itself as it unspools a tale of a boy and his journey to adulthood while caught in the tailwind of forces that seem to be out of his control.

The story is told in three chapters that use the boy’s name as it evolves over time — Little, Chiron and Black — with each played by a different actor. Set in a rough part of Miami, Florida, it begins very simply by introducing us to little Chiron’s (Alex R. Hibbert) world. It isn’t pretty. There are drug dealers on the corner. Kids go to school, but have to deal with bullying and gang influences. There is a real threat of sudden violence.

Chiron lives with his mom, Paula (Naomie Harris), an attractive woman who is employed by a hospital. At first, she appears to be like any hardworking, overprotective single mom, but the pressures surrounding her — which include an abusive ex, the day-to-day struggle of keeping her and her son’s heads above water and the constant presence of drugs — wear her down. Despite her better nature, she succumbs and becomes a crack addict.

In the meantime, Chiron, born of a slight stature, is constantly picked on by bigger boys. One day, while being chased, he encounters Juan (Mahershala Ali, winner of the Academy Award for best supporting actor), who is a Cuban-born neighborhood drug dealer. Juan lives with a woman named Teresa (Janelle Monáe) and the two, almost by accident or by virtue of a deep-seated goodness about them, become the closest thing to parental symbols for Chiron. While Chiron’s mom dives deeper into addiction and the ways it can change a kindness into violent unpredictability, he finds solace at Teresa’s house.

One of the best scenes in the film occurs when Chiron and Juan are talking at the dinner table. Finally allowing himself to trust him, Chiron innocently blurts out a question. He asks what a common gay slur means. Juan, instead of struggling to define it for the ears of a kid, tells him the truth. He says it’s “a word used to make gay people feel bad.”

The scene is important because Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is becoming adept at using masks to hide his true nature. He knows he will have to keep people thinking one way while he keeps his real life secret. But Juan knows this sense is growing in the boy and one day at the beach tells him, “At some point, you’ve got to decide who wanna be. … Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”

That nature becomes real for Chiron when a friendship with a boy named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) takes an unexpected turn right after his relationship with Juan also changes.

As the story moves forward, we see Chiron become “Black,” a nickname Kevin gave him when they were kids. Now played by Trevante Rhodes, Chiron is a dangerous-looking drug dealer. In some ways, he resembles the rapper 50 Cent, complete with a massive build, gold grillz and an impenetrable attitude as he drives a solid ride with a plate that reads BLACK305. A mask – that’s all it is – and as previously stated, Chiron has become very good at using it.

Director Barry Jenkins drew from personal experience to craft this film. His own mother was reportedly a crack addict, and he shot the movie in an area of Miami where he grew up. The film’s title is taken from an unproduced play by screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney called “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”

Other things to take note of is that Mahershala Ali is the first Muslim person to win the Academy Award for acting and that “Moonlight” is the first fully LGBT story to win the Academy Award for best picture. It is also had the lowest budget for a best picture winner ever.

“Moonlight” is rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence and language throughout.

It is screening daily at Mitchell Storyteller 7 Theatres, 110 Old Talpa Cañón Road. For show times, tickets and additional information, call (575) 751-4245 or visit

Also showing in Taos

The following was compiled from press materials.

Twentieth Century Women

MPAA rating: R for sexual material, language, some nudity and brief drug use

Movies at the TCA film series

In 1979 Santa Barbara, California, Dorothea Fields (Annette Bening) is a determined single mother in her mid-50s who is raising her adolescent son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), at a moment brimming with cultural change and rebellion. Dorothea enlists the help of two younger women — Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a free-spirited punk artist living as a boarder in the Fields’ home, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a savvy and provocative teenage neighbor — to help with Jamie’s upbringing.

Living in a bohemian household shared with three like-minded, spirited people to help pay the rent, Jamie’s mother tries to establish bonds that he cannot deal with. She cannot deal with his inability to talk and enlists the help of other females in his life to share the burden of his upbringing. Slowly, life unravels for them all without understanding how. In spite of their perceived struggles, they all go on to live without any serious consequences.

Writer-director Mike Mills took inspiration from his mother and sister to create the characters of Dorothea and Abbie, saying in a media report, “It felt like I was raised by my mom and sisters, so I was always appealing to women in the punk scene or women in my world. I always leaned to them to figure out my life as a straight white guy, so I wanted to make a movie about that.”

Mills describes the film as a “love letter” to the women who raised him.

“The best thing about the movie is Bening’s performance as Dorothea Fields, who’s portrayed as a very particular kind of contradictory free spirit. Divorced and proud, with a lot of heart and soul but even more over-sharing flakiness,” writes Owen Gleiberman in Variety.

The film co-stars Billy Crudup, Alison Elliott and Alia Shawkat.

This film will be screened at 2 p.m. Sunday (March 5) and at 7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday (March 6-8).

Movies at the TCA film series, Taos Community Auditorium, 145 Paseo del Pueblo Norte. For tickets and additional information, call the Taos Center for the Arts at (575) 758-2052 or visit


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