Eloquent, Evocative, Elegant Tale Of Relationships
In the marginalised projects in Florida, a very young black boy, neglected by his drug addled mother, finds care in unexpected quarters. The drug supplier and his girlfriend. Chiron is this fragile child who grows up to be a gentle teen. Alas life is never kind and when you are black and gay, it becomes that much more difficult to survive. But he does. This film is beautifully shot, gently shown story of friendship and love and gratitude.
‘Black boys are blue in the moonlight’ says a gentle voice when the film begins. You are intrigued by the saucer-eyed child Chiron who looks at you with fear in his eyes. He’s running away from neighborhood bullies. He is rescued by a drug dealer called Juan (Mahershala Ali) who takes him home to his wonderful girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae in a remarkable role). Alex Hibbert, the 12 year old discovery is astoundingly good as Chiron, the neglected child of a mother who is a crackhead. He just has to look into the camera and you would be compelled to sneak a look at your telephone to check where your children are at that moment. Your heart has been stolen by this boy and Juan and Teresa become his surrogate caregivers so naturally you say a little prayer in your head to thank God for all the good people on this planet.
Their kindness is rewarded, and you are submerged in the ocean with Chiron and the Juan and learn to swim. In one of the finest scenes one has seen in cinema, you breathe easy and begin smiling at the screen when Chiron learns to swim.
Chiron’s crackhead mother is played by the terrifically talented Naomi Harris. She is so good, you are at once angered and at once repelled by her mothering of Chiron. You don’t want to empathise with her, her son has already stolen your heart.
The film is divided into three parts, as if they were three separate stories, and the abruptness does jolt you out of your seat because you the audience has a bit of growing up to o as well. And growing up black and gay is the toughest. Teenage Chiron played brilliantly by Jharrel Jerome is fragile and delicate and gentle. His one and only childhood friend Kevin learns to deal differently with high school bullies. Chiron goes through high school trying to blend into the walls, Kevin does not mind joining the bullies in their games of ‘Choose a victim, hit him and tell him to stay down or beat him up more’. Kevin has to survive too, and the film asks you to not judge. It is Kevin who helps Chiron understand that he’s gay. The late night encounter on the beach where Chiron has gone to clear his head, could have been titillating in any other film, but it is so understated that the ocean seems to be too loud.
Teenage Chiron is plagued by his sexuality, his shyness, his fear of the bullies and the despair at home. And fed up of being pushed to the wall, he turns into a man. He’s still plagued by nightmares, but now he’s wearing a gold grill on his teeth, his body is no longer delicate, and he drives a car that blasts ‘I’m a classic man/You can be mean when you look this clean/I’m a classic man’. That in some ways the song refrain describes Chiron when he drives down from Atlanta, GA on the basis of that one late night phone call from Kevin, confident, a man’s man. But when he actually meets Kevin, we see that Chiron’s gentleness and vulnerability is hidden behind the gold grills and the chain and a buff body. Kevin is still confident and still cocky and amused at how little Chiron still talks. Trevante Rhodes plays adult Chiron and he is magical. Kevin (Andre Holland), now a cook at a diner, makes a meal for Chiron that will make everyone sitting in audience jealous. This has to be love. The squeezing of the lemon on grilled chicken, the chopping and garnishing is so elegantly done, you forget that it’s just a diner.
The film is full of gentle moments that stay with you despite the undercurrents of violence in the story. You are stunned by Alex Hibbert making an appearance in the end but know that the film is now telling you what Juan told little Chiron: At some point you gotta decide what you gonna be.
You will be glad that the film refuses to fall into the trap of the usual ‘give it an ending’, ‘tie all loose ends’ and lets you go home with the ocean breezes making you feel that you too need to answer the questions the film asks…
(this review appears on nowrunning dot com)