Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age drama Moonlight feels so personal, so revealing, that it sometimes seems as though you shouldn’t even be watching it. Yet you might also find it impossible to look away; Jenkins’ cinematic triptych on the experiences of a young, gay, black male growing up in lower-middle-class Miami elicits the kind of empathetic fascination you occasionally derive from a first-rate memoir, and only rarely from a movie. Given how thrillingly, unusually specific its point-of-view is, Moonlight’s also being extraordinarily well-acted, -written, and -produced is practically a bonus.
On its surface, the film bears a passing resemblance to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, following our protagonist Chiron through three distinct periods in his life: the grade-school Chiron’s introduction to, and tentative rapport with, an unexpected father figure; the teenage Chiron’s first stirrings of romantic love followed by a horrifying betrayal; and the adult Chiron’s reunions with a struggling family member and a long-lost friend. Famously, Ellar Coltrane played Boyhood’s central character through the entirety of that movie’s 12-year span, while Moonlight has three separate performers – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes – assigned to its lead. But one of the many miracles of Jenkins’ offering is that you could easily be fooled into thinking the filmmaker took six or seven years off in between each of the film’s three acts and just let Chiron’s initial portrayer age naturally. Playing this bullied, confused, lonely kid who’s too emotionally constricted to verbalize nearly anything he’s feeling, Hibbert melds into Sanders, and Sanders into Rhodes, with staggeringly naturalistic precision (and, according to a Jenkins interview in Film Comment, without the performers seeing one another’s work during dailies). Jenkins provides visual motifs that connect Chiron as he ages – principally long closeups of the child/man gazing directly into the camera – yet the actors’ transcendent understanding of the role ensures that you can always sense the wary, frightened child inside the teen, and the lost, affection-starved teen inside the adult.
In castmates Mahershala Ali (Chiron’s savior Juan in the film’s first third) and Naomie Harris (Chiron’s mother Paula in all three segments), you’re also given a glimpse of everything Chiron is both aching for and frightened of. Not long into Moonlight, Juan, a well-known neighborhood fixture, calms the boy after he’s been terrorized by classmates, getting him some food and allowing him to spend the night in the spacious suburban home he shares with girlfriend Teresa (a gentle, bighearted Janelle Monáe). What we’ve learned prior to their encounter, however, is that Juan is also an intimidating drug dealer, and another movie would have us waiting for the inevitable moment in which Chiron sees this man behaving like the bastard he must certainly be. Yet like most everyone we meet in Moonlight, Juan transcends easy stereotype. There’s no question that he’s capable of violence. But in Jenkins’ and Ali’s sterling interpretation of the character, he’s also filled with tenderness and insight; he knows enough about who he is to know what he can mean, and does mean, to Chiron. There’s a scene between the two in which Chiron asks Juan what the word “faggot” means, and when I heard Juan’s explanation delivered with such sensitivity and truthfulness, I thought it was the most heartbreakingly honest film moment I’d witnessed all year. It was ... for a few minutes. And then it was topped by Juan’s silent reaction after Chiron asked if the man sold drugs, and left the room upon getting his answer.
If the dazzlingly charismatic Ali provides much of the film’s warmth, the equally marvelous Harris brings the chill, and then the warmth. As with Juan, our first image of Paula is misleading – deeply fretful, in her hospital aide’s uniform, about her son’s whereabouts during his overnight stay. We soon, however, wholly get Chiron’s reluctance to return home to her: Paula is a crack addict. (Complicating matters further, Juan turns out to be her supplier.) While Harris has only a handful of scenes in Moonlight, she paints an unforgettable picture of drug-addled desperation triumphing over maternal instinct; you can see the battle raging in Paula’s tightly wound physicality and restless eyes, and also her pathetic awareness that it’s a battle she’s clearly losing. Yet even at her most assaultive, Paula, to Jenkins’ and Harris’ immense credit, is never a monster, and in the film’s final encounter between mother and son, she proves as worthy of sympathy and love as Chiron himself.
Jenkins’ drama, with its sublime photography by James Laxton and fiercely unconventional score by Nicolas Britell, is practically bursting with moments that feel unerringly faithful to real-world experience: young Chiron filling his bathtub with dishwashing liquid; teen Chiron steadfastly refusing to cower from an imminent beating; adult Chiron shyly removing his bad-ass gold fronts before eating dinner. Yet nowhere is the realness more evident than in Jenkins’ graceful, gracious direction of his performers and the time he allows them to express their characters’ complicated emotions. Unimpeachable dialogue aside, it’s a film of thoughts unvoiced and words left deliberately unsaid, and we amass worlds of understanding through those exquisite long seconds of silence. (Some of the most moving silences are reserved for the movie’s final third, in scenes of Chiron meeting up with a former high-school ally played by the spectacular André Holland.) Boasting narrative turns both subtle and shocking – some of which actually take place in the ellipses between acts – and at all times devastatingly sincere, Moonlight shouldn’t be missed. It feels lit from within.
BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK
Although officially classified as an original screenplay, Moonlight’s script was inspired by the unpublished play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney (who receives a “story by” credit). Yet the film itself isn’t the least bit stagey. In contrast, director Ang Lee’s new Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is based on a well-regarded 2012 novel by Ben Fountain but instead feels like it was based on a play – and an intensely stagey, fraudulent play, to boot. Even though he began his filmmaking career in his native Taiwan, the two-time Oscar winner Lee also directed Sense & Sensibility and the 2003 Hulk and Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi, among other titles with English-speaking casts. Why does his latest sound as though he’s never before heard an American talk? Almost sentence for sentence, the dialogue in this war-hero drama-cum-satire stands out, just like in a bad play, for its artificiality and almost complete disregard for the way people actually converse, the blame for which one could lay at screenwriter Jean-Christophe Castelli’s (and maybe Fountain’s) feet. But surely Lee could have guided his actors, some of whom are phenomenally gifted, to less-mannered portrayals than the ones given here. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a weird, weird movie – a grab bag of randomly effective moments mixed with many more that leave you with only one appropriate response: “Huh?!?”
The best scenes, unsurprisingly, are the ones front-loaded with action: the Army-combat sequences set in 2004 Iraq in which 19-year-old Billy (Joe Alwyn) and his fellow members of Bravo Company fight in the siege that will eventually make them American media darlings. Lee’s flashback staging of this skirmish is ferocious and scary, and the fleeting bursts of barracks humor throughout the Iraq segments feel just right. (Among the cast, Garrett Hedlund proves most capable at delivering deadpan, darkly cynical witticisms, as when his commanding officer leads the Bravo troops into battle with “Let’s go get a middle school named after us.”) But even in the flashbacks, we’re confronted with the strange sight of Vin Diesel’s beloved Amy officer espousing Hindu philosophy directly into the camera and addressing each of his troops with an uncomfortably heartfelt “I love you”; it’s a welcome relief seeing Diesel in friendly-and-relaxed mode, but I’m not sure anyone could pull this character off. And whenever we return to America – specifically, the Dallas football game at which Company Bravo is expected to appear during Destiny’s Child’s halftime show – it’s just one odd, unconvincing thing after another, with Billy suffering clear symptoms of PTSD in between tense encounters with the public, flirtations with Makenzie Leigh’s cheerleader, and empty promises from Chris Tucker’s Hollywood suit. (We’re told, by the way, that Company Bravo’s story has snagged the interest of a major star: Hillary Swank, who wants to play Billy. I wish I was kidding – or rather, I wish the film were kidding.)
Newcomer Alwyn, with his adorable pink cheeks and quite-excellent Texas accent for a British guy, is incredibly genial and watchable, and manages to suggest Billy’s harrowing ordeal through his haunted stare and ability to shed more tears than the collective cast of Interstellar. Kristen Stewart, meanwhile, may be stuck with the film’s most artless, obvious lines in her role as Billy’s concerned sister, but her sharp actor’s instincts and low-key deliveries keep her grounded and compelling. Would that the same could be said for about 95-percent of the others, including Steve Martin’s misanthropic team owner, Tim Blake Nelson’s uncouth interloper, and just about everyone in Company Bravo not played by Alwyn or Hedlund. And would that it could be said for the movie itself, which teeters with so little conviction between coyly sentimental drama and feeble media satire that it’s hard to tell which genre it’s most failing at. In some theatres in larger markets, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is being released in an off-putting-sounding, super-high-definition 3D version that apparently makes it look as though the actors are right there, literally within touching distance. I was fine seeing the movie without the technical upgrade. After the first few times, it would’ve gotten tiresome reaching out at someone to smack.
THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN
Any list of the best high-school movies of the decade would have to include the piercing Stephen Chbosky adaptation The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the Emma Stone riot Easy A. Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig’s new The Edge of Seventeen is as moving as the former and as funny as the latter, which means it might have to rank near that list’s very top, if not at the top. I’m kind of floored by just how good Craig’s directorial debut is. In outline, it’s little more than a collection of tropes that John Hughes and the like have forever mined for teen-angst fun: dating woes, BFF breakups, absent parents, irritating siblings, pubic humiliation. But while nothing that happens in Edge of Seventeen may surprise you, none of it happens in quite the manner you expect, either; while it’s a hugely satisfying teen comedy, it’s an even more hugely satisfying human comedy.
Hailee Steinfeld plays sardonic high-school junior and unrivaled drama queen Nadine Byrd, who, as her introductory (and empty) suicide threat makes clear, is having a hard time. Her dad died of a sudden heart attack five years ago; her self-involved mom (Kyra Sedgwick) has turned to serial dating; her jock brother (Blake Jenner) has always been Mom’s favorite; her best friend (Haley Lu Richardson) has taken a romantic interest in Bro; the cute classmate she likes (Alexander Calvert) doesn’t notice her; the cute classmate she likes as a friend (Hayden Szeto) notices her too much. And it’s all just too much to take for poor, motor-mouthed Nadine (and for the poor, superhumanly patient teacher on the receiving end of her tirades, whom Woody Harrelson plays with unforced gallantry and sandpaper-dry wit). Yet happily, it’s never too much for us, because every last one of these subplots is one we’re eager to return to. Craig writes peppery, perfectly observed dialogue that has the distinction of sounding both highly polished and completely spontaneous, and she displays an incredible ear for the meanness of high-schoolers – the way, when cornered, they can lash out with a comment so hurtful and cruel that it takes even them by surprise. (Few teen films have taken such full advantage of an R-rating for profanity without simultaneously exploiting it.) But Craig clearly knows when conversation would just get in the way of the lingering mood, and her movie is also filled with lovely moments of respite – or maybe merely exhaustion – in which even the grade-A blabber Nadine understands the need to shut the hell up. Craig treats all of her characters with respect and their situations, even the high-comic ones, with a seriousness befitting what an actual person would feel experiencing them; I laughed a lot, and laughed hard, at Edge of Seventeen, and at no point felt like I was laughing at anyone’s expense.
The film’s universal empathy is perhaps most evident in Craig’s decision – a stunningly unexpected one in teen flicks – to not allow Nadine to wholly dominate the proceedings; there are wonderfully written and acted scenes between Sedgwick and Jenner, and Jenner and Richardson, that, remarkably, don’t reference Nadine at all. But that empathy is also there in the fantastically endearing Szeto, who gets to casually demolish many decades of Asian-nerd stereotypes, and in Nadine’s wrenching confrontation with her brother, who refuses to let his sister’s snap judgments – and perhaps ours – define him. (After this film and his sweetheart turn as the lead in Everybody Wants Some!!, let’s hope 2016 is the first of many great years in Blake Jenner’s screen career.) And it’s most expressively there in Nadine herself, especially as portrayed by Steinfeld in her first star-remaking role since her Oscar-nominated 2010 debut for the Coen brothers. Verbally hilarious, physically droll, emotionally acute, and so colossally in-character that Nadine can come off as bewitching and maddening in the same breath, Steinfeld is masterful in The Edge of Seventeen, and in a movie of extraordinary pleasures, her contributions might prove the most pleasurable of all. I tell ya: That gal’s got true grit.