Troubled Families: One Youth Suffers for Who He Is; Another Rejects a Sweet Life

At the Movies

Alex Hibbert and Mahershala Ali appear in “Moonlight.” Photo: David Bornfriend, courtesy A24 Pictures

‘Moonlight’

Films about the American “inner city,” typically featuring the stresses of urban black life, have waxed and waned, with the occasional striking effort (e.g. “Precious” and “Fruitvale Station”). A new drama in this sphere proves as absorbing as any in recent memory. At its heart “Moonlight” is a moving meditation on the “inner life” of its protagonist Chiron as much as it is a depiction of an inner city. (Released Oct. 28, the film is rated R and runs 111 minutes.)

“Moonlight” is a triad covering Chiron’s life: his profound loneliness as a taciturn nine-year-old, his continuing marginalization as a bullied 16-year-old but with a first taste of love, and his re-creation as a buff yet solitary drug dealer in his 20s. His world is circumscribed by the streets of Liberty City, a black neighborhood in North Miami, a world well known to the filmmakers.

Act One finds Chiron (Alex Hibbert) in a barren apartment with single mom Paula (Naomie Harris), who is sliding into drug dependence while her child (derogatorily called “Little” by his classmates) suffers ostracism for lack of any gumption. Only one classmate, chatty Kevin (Jaden Piner), encourages him to stand up for himself. He is then somewhat surprisingly taken in by a local hustler, Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), who show him respect and ease him out of his shell.

Act Two finds Chiron (Ashton Sanders) still with Paula, now lost to crack, while he is pilloried at school for his latent homosexuality. He remains solitary, though the teenage Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) remains a fitful friend who, on a warm beach night, introduces him to sex. Yet even Kevin turns against him in a put-up fight, wherein Chiron takes a beating that pushes him to a frightful revenge.  

The third segment finds him in Atlanta 10 years on – with the street name “Black” (Trevante Rhodes) – having served time but now running drugs as Juan had done years before, still stoic and still alone. A surprise phone call from Kevin (Andre Holland), now working as a cook back home, triggers a desire to see his old friend, whom he encounters at the latter’s restaurant where dormant memories lead to a catharsis.

Let me now praise Barry Jenkins, the writer/director of “Moonlight,” for his wholly rounded portrayal of a soul at key points in his life. In adapting playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s drama “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins has elicited three wondrous and controlled performances from his three Chirons. Young Hibbert faces his raw world with the sad mask of the defeated, aching to belong. You want to adopt him. Teen-aged Sanders, willowy and wary and tormented by the first stirrings of his sexuality, stares blankly at the world until he finally explodes with rage. Finally, big Black, as played by the imposing Rhodes, appears as a quiescent giant with a life going nowhere. The actor’s very different physical presence may seem to contradict the waifish nature of the younger Chirons, but Rhodes and Jenkins overcome this apparent anomaly by maintaining a beautifully consistent tone of personality for his three different actors.

Naomie Harris, a British beauty best known for adorning Bond movies, is superb here as a wanton soul capable of explosive cruelty and aching neediness. Only a touching late scene with her in rehab mitigates the throes of her addiction. Ali, known as Remi in “House of Cards,” comes on as the classic dealer/badass who then surprises as a tender mentor to the cowed Chiron, an unlikely father figure who introduces the young man to a calm domestic life, a swim in the ocean, and a rigorous honesty about himself. His street-tough demeanor makes his affectionate attentions all the more striking.

Besides the splendid guidance of his actors, Jenkins excels in his imaginative use of the medium. His film (cinematography by James Laxton) shows distinctive phases. The first captures Miami’s sun-washed brightness with a bouncing hand-held camera and tight close-ups, while the second makes much of claustrophobic interiors (at home and at school) with a dramatic headlong finish. His last act turns elegiac, with a languorous camera and a soft night ambiance. All of these moods are enhanced by a nervous, chittering string music track (by Nicholas Britell) beautifully responsive to the action. Never is that music more effective than when Jenkins punctuates a kid’s playground tussle with an ethereal Mozart soprano solo.

“Moonlight” gives weight and substance to one of society’s forgotten souls and does it with sincerity and panache: a wonder.

‘American Pastoral’

Sometimes creative acts come in twos. Just last July, your friendly reviewer discussed in these pages the film “Indignation,” based on a Philip Roth novel, while noting attempts by Hollywood to adapt other Roth works. Voila! Mere months later and another Roth adaptation appears, “American Pastoral,” based on the writer’s critically acclaimed 1997 novel. Directed by and starring Ewan McGregor, the movie is an ambitious effort that inevitably falls short of attaining the historicism and symbolism of the original. (Now in theaters, the film is rated R for mature themes and runs 126 minutes.)

In this version, scripted by John Romano, the core story is told in flashback during a Newark, N.J., high school reunion where Jerry Levov (Rupert Evans) informs narrator Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn) about Levov’s just-deceased brother, Seymour (or “Swede” for his blond locks). Swede was a golden boy, a star athlete and Marine who married the town beauty, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), had a sweet daughter, Meredith (Dakota Fanning), smoothly took over his father Lev’s (Peter Riegert) thriving glove business in Newark, and settled comfortably into the upscale suburb of Old Rimrock.

The time is early 1968 with the Vietnam War heating up and, though Swede’s life seems serenely unaffected by it, his 16-year-old daughter, nicknamed Merry, is so embittered by America’s actions that she acts out by setting a bomb in the local post office, killing its inhabitant, then swiftly goes underground. Dawn is crushed by her daughter’s act but slowly accedes to it, while the distraught Levov begins a dogged pursuit to both find his daughter and to learn the reasons for her actions. Within that pursuit his life and his marriage spiral ever downward.

The telling of this fable of the 60s has its poignancy. Merry is eventually found, and her revelations and the world to which she has succumbed are worse than Swede could have imagined. Yet much of this narrative of his tenacious search for his daughter is less than compelling. 

Swede, in McGregor’s impersonation, is earnest but repetitive, ringing standard changes on the stricken father trying to fathom his daughter and who – in the end – cannot. Connelly certainly scores high on the beauty queen scale, but her character is underwritten, and a hospital-bed confession comes out of nowhere. Poor Fanning lacks the screen time to show the development of her radicalism, so her bitter denunciation of her father seems just willful and utterly unearned. Worst of all is activist Rita Cohen (Valorie Curry), a stereotypical radical who offers a disquieting and prurient come-on to Swede. Perhaps best of all is the appearance of veteran Riegert as the sardonic Lev, the lone source of humor in a film almost wholly devoid of it.

With “American Pastoral” we may be witnessing again the perpetual dilemma of adapting a complex and high-minded novel into convincing cinematic terms. The story has much to chew on, but that doesn’t mean that it has much taste.

Ewan McGregor as “Swede” Levov in “American Pastoral.”
 Photo: Richard Foreman

Hill resident Mike Canning has written on movies for the Hill Rag since 1993 and is a member of the Washington Area Film Critics Association. He is the author of “Hollywood on the Potomac: How the Movies View Washington, DC.” His reviews and writings on film can be found online at www.mikesflix.com.


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