When you walk into the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto, the first thing you see are leaves — crisp-looking, fall-colored, hanging in mass from the low-ceiling over the back seats. It's the sort of aesthetic flourish designed to make you feel that you're not just watching, say, a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, you're sitting in the middle of it. And in its own weird way, this quaint touch added to the experience of seeing the festival's first public showing of Moonlight, Barry Jenkins' ambitious sophomore movie about a young African-American male's coming-of-age and breaking-of-spirit. Such an immersive, sensuous film will already make you feel that you've stepped into another world entirely, one of painfully sunny Miami afternoons where dealers make their paper and deep-blue midnights at a beach where melancholy handjobs take place. The addition of nature, theatrically manufactured or otherwise, only enhances the movie's already palpable sense of you-are-there Southerness. But it isn't like this extraordinary character study required extra atmospheric elements to make you feel the love and heartbreak of its lonely hero. This is a masterpiece no matter where or how you present it.
Ah yes, the M-word — so overused and abused, so very dangerous to throw around when you're talking about an artist with only two films under his belt. But Moonlight earns the right to be identified as a cinematic pinnacle as well as a personal statement; this is what "the movies" look like when the medium's full arsenal of expression is being tapped by someone with vision. In adapting playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney's work "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue," Jenkins has found a vehicle for refracting various aspects of African-American life through the prism of one sensitive kid's bumpy journey to manhood, one woozy, swooning shot at a time.
And like that experience, nothing about the narrative he's presenting is simple: The local drug-slinger (Mahershala Ali) is both a neighborhood destroyer and a nurturing father figure to Chiron, a picked-on kid in desperate need of a guide. The boy's best friend Kevin is both a belligerent high-school bully's muscle-for-hire and someone who'll provide Chiron with his introduction to physical intimacy. Mom (Naomie Harris) is a protective figure trying to keep the lad from falling under the sway of bad folks while also buying crack from those exact same people. Everyone contains multitudes. Everyone is a human being.
As for Chiron, well ... he's a quiet, near-silent kid filled with anger, shame and the sense that something about him is different. His peers pick up on the fact that he's gay before he does, which only adds to the confusion and alienation he feels both inside and outside his household. (In one of the movie's best scenes, Chiron asks the dealer and his girlfriend, played by Janelle Monáe, what a "faggot" is. The older man sympathetically replies "a word designed to make gay people hate themselves"; the shot of Monáe slowly shaking her head when he starts to add a qualifier is the GIF everybody should be getting for Christmas.) Played as a prepubescent by Alex Hibbert and as a teen by Ashton Sanders, the character is defined by his passiveness and his isolation, whether sitting in a bath with stove-warmed water, standing out at the shore at dusk or staring into the camera in a school nurse's office after a severe beating. Until, suddenly, he's not passive at all — and by the time we catch up with his third incarnation, played by Trevante Rhodes, the prison-bulky physique and gold fronts immediately tell you what's happened to him in the interim.
The successful narco-entrepreneur, the crack-addict mom, the homophobic alpha-male thug, the beta-male kid who's pushed too far, the gay teen coming out in dire circumstances — these are clichés. Jenkins, however, inverts every single one of these aspects and weaves them into the mix in a way that tells this boy-to-man tale like a mosaic made out of broken, refitted materials. Familiarity does not breed contempt here, especially when the shorthand qualities are filtered through such a sumptuous visual palette; the use of color in particular, with tons of midnight blues, bruised purples and the occasional Miami neon-pastel splash, turns this into something far more impressionistic than your average bleak, life-is-hard drama or tragic love story. "Whenever I make a formal choice, I want it to be rooted in something," Jenkins said at the post-screening Q&A, which sounds obvious until you realize how few filmmakers seem to be doing that these days, in either the studio or indie sectors. You watch the way he works with actors (all of the performances feel perfectly attuned), you see how he collaborates with cinematographer James Laxton and how he's found his own connection through McCraney's theater piece, and you realize you're in solid hands here. Every camera movement feels accounted for.
By the time we get to film's final act, in which a buffed-up Chiron, now known as "Black," returns to visit his now-grown buddy (played by The Knick's André Holland), and the two men catch up in the latter's restaurant, we've already watched the character go through several rounds of self-demolition. To say that Jenkins gifts Chiron a deserved moment of peace is to underplay the impact of the movie's last long, laconic conversational set pieces; the gesture of healing that the filmmaker presents in a silent, penultimate shot is the most quietly devastating reward you will get as a moviegoer this season.
It's been eight years since Jenkins gave us his debut Medicine for Melancholy, and many of us in Toronto had been hoping he'd made the most of the time to, if nothing else, avoid a sophomore slump. Instead, as we all realized while standing and clapping and sobbing while the director and the cast took the stage and the leaves above us felt like they were rustling over our heads that he'd just given us a rare gift. We would be leaving the theater as different people than we'd come in. We'd seen a unicorn. We'd seen an M-word.