By John Mulderig
NEW YORK (CNS) — Considered as an exploration of the African-American experience in contemporary society, writer-director Barry Jenkins’ powerfully understated drama “Moonlight” (A24) makes a compelling statement.
As the film chronicles three stages in the life of an inner-city Miami youth, however, aspects of its main character’s personal story raise complications for viewers of faith.
As a bullied and withdrawn 10-year-old, burdened with a crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), Chiron (Alex Hibbert), derisively nicknamed Little, comes under the surprisingly positive influence of local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan’s gentle girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), becomes a more predictable mentor, taking on the role of a second mom.
One of the few other bright spots in Chiron’s bleak existence is his friendship with schoolmate Kevin (Jaden Piner) who proves much more accepting of Chiron than the lad’s other peers.
Reaching his teens, Chiron (now Ashton Sanders) falls for Kevin (now Jharrel Jerome). Although Kevin boasts (apparently truthfully) of his prowess with women, he willingly participates in a single sexual act with Chiron. But circumstances soon set them cruelly at odds with each other.
Once grown — and now played by Trevante Rhodes — Chiron has himself become a pusher with a grim persona symbolized by his latest moniker, Black. He lives an isolated and shady life until an unexpected reunion opens up emotional possibilities for him.
The relationship at the heart of the film is dealt with in a restrained and thoughtful way, with spiritual affinity far outweighing eroticism and fidelity leading to sexual reserve. Yet the physical expression of the bond is presented as acceptable, making it impossible to endorse “Moonlight” for any age group.
In fact, the temptation to let sympathy blur moral borders is all the more potent here because immensely likable, terribly downtrodden Chiron has the audience rooting for him all the way. So, too, does compassionate Kevin. Yet commiseration needs to be clear-eyed where ethical truths, especially those taught both by Scripture and tradition, are at stake.
The film contains tacit endorsement of homosexual acts, mature themes, including narcotics use and prostitution, a graphic heterosexual and a semi-graphic same-sex encounter, several mild oaths, frequent rough and crude language and some vulgar sex talk. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.