Back in January as concerns were being voiced about “Oscars so white,” Nate Parker’s intense dramatization of a 19th century slave revolt, provocatively titled The Birth of a Nation, took the Sundance festival by storm. But by the time of the movie’s October release, controversy over Parker’s own past — he’d been found innocent on a charge of sexual assault many years earlier — overshadowed and dimmed its prospects. Instead, another film by an African-American director has emerged to great acclaim, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (http://moonlight-movie.com/), to be joined later this month by Denzel Washington’s Fences.
Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” Moonlight follows the boyhood to manhood evolution of Chiron, the only child of a single mother in the tough Liberty City neighbourhood of Miami. It is also a movie wholly immersed in the African-American experience.
The first of three chapters begins with the diminutive 10-year-old Chiron (Alex Hibbert) being chased by other boys who tease him with the nickname “Little” and call him soft. However, Chiron finds a protector in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a burly Cuban American drug dealer who takes a shine to the “little man” and brings him home to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Juan becomes a sort of surrogate father if not role model to Chiron. Their place is a refuge from an unstable home life complicated by the fact that his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is a crack user and customer of Juan, resorting to sex work to support her addiction. We get the sense of a wide-eyed boy, a target of schoolyard taunts of “faggot,” anxiously looking for adult guidance where he can find it.
In the next chapter Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is a skinny reticent 16-year-old who gets pushed around by high school bullies. His mother takes her troubles out on him so he sometimes seeks comfort at Teresa’s place. The adolescent Chiron is also wrestling with his sexuality. One night on a beach, a more confident schoolmate named Kevin (Jharell Jerome), who’s bragged about female conquests, seduces him into a homosexual encounter. When Kevin, who nicknames him “Black,” then takes part in a schoolyard beating, the biggest bruise Chiron suffers is of betrayal. In his closeted confusion he strikes back leading to an arrest for assault. He seems set to follow the troubled path of so many African American young men.
In the final chapter a decade later, Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) has moved to Atlanta and bulked up. He’s become on the outside the macho black man, dealing drugs and imitating the style of Juan — the fancy car, the diamond ear studs and gold neck chain. But on the inside he’s still hurting. A possibility of healing is suggested by two visits — to his mother in what appears to be a rehab facility, and a return to Miami to reconnect with Kevin (André Holland), now an ex-con on probation working as a cook in a restaurant. Kevin also has a little son with a woman from whom he’s estranged. When Kevin probes Chiron with the question “Who is you?” their reunion moves from wary awkwardness to a moment of tender reconciliation and acceptance. A poignant last scene gives hope of overcoming the ghetto past — what Jenkins has called the effects of “bad nurturing” (the character of Paula is partly based on his and McCraney’s own mothers) and “the performance of toxic masculinity.”
While a parallel might be drawn with Linklater’s masterpiece Boyhood, Jenkins, who uses three different actors over a single shooting period, is focused on portraying a minority lower-class existence on the margins of American society. He does so with immense skill and sensitivity.
Everything about this movie is exceptional — the writing, the performances, the fluid camera angles, the music, all adding up to a profound feeling of authenticity. Jenkins has struggled as a filmmaker. This is only his second feature after an absence of eight years. Yet he has created the year’s best film to date, one that is destined to become a classic of the American cinema.
Controversial Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s Elle, which premiered at Cannes, isn’t a “blue movie” but, be warned, its take on the subject of sexual violence is certainly provocative. Adapted by David Birke from the Philippe Djian novel Oh..., the protagonist is a middle-aged woman, Michèle Leblanc, the co-owner of a video game business steeped in sexually violent content, and the daughter of a now elderly prisoner convicted of mass murder (27 victims) when she was 10 years old. (There’s a suggestion of traumatic psychopathic effects on the child.) Michèle lives alone with a charcoal-coloured cat. Isabelle Huppert, magnificent in Things to Come playing an aging single woman who inherits a black cat, is even more amazing in the challenging role of Michèle.
The movie opens to a shockingly brutal scene as Michèle is raped by a black-clad intruder in a ski mask while the cat looks on. It goes unreported, as she wants nothing to do with police. She simply cleans up and orders sushi. In the following days she carries on stoically, although she does take precautions — getting checked out at a hospital, changing the locks, buying pepper spray and a weapon, later learning to shoot. She maintains a remarkable sangfroid in the midst of relationships that are troubled to say the least — with her hated father, her ex-husband Richard and mother Irène who’ve taken young lovers, her hot-headed son Vincent and his unstable pregnant girlfriend, the young male video designers over whom she presides. She’s also having an affair behind the back of her best friend and business partner Hélène.
The most bizarre and fateful relationship develops with a neighbour, Patrick, a seemingly mild-mannered banker whose wife is a devout Catholic. When she invites them to a Christmas Eve party there’s an extraordinary scene in which Michèle, after flirting with Patrick furtively over dinner, confides the events of her father’s murderous rampage to him while in another room his unsuspecting wife is watching Midnight Mass from the Vatican on television.
The tension keeps rising as Michèle suspects the rapist is someone she knows. After a second break-in and assault she fantasizes about one in which she kills her assailant. What happens after his identity is revealed is perhaps the most disturbing of all. Throughout, Michèle’s icy self-possession is something to behold.
Verhoeven has made some awful exploitative movies. But I’m recommending this one in contrast to those because, however transgressive the territory it explores, Elle brilliantly constructs a complex psychological portrait anchored in Huppert’s riveting performance that stands conventional notions of misogyny and revenge on their head. This is a story with a tortured soul you won’t soon forget.
Moana (http://movies.disney.com/moana): Disney’s latest animated feature, is a musical delight that centres on Moana Waialiki, a Polynesian princess from a long line of expert navigators who sets out on an ocean journey of epic mythological proportions in order to help her family.
Rules Don’t Apply (http://www.foxmovies.com/movies/rules-dont-apply): Warren Beatty makes a modestly entertaining return to the screen after a long absence as director, writer and actor in the role of the eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes. The nostalgic setting is 1958 Hollywood and the bizarre entanglements that follow when a newly arrived innocent young actress under contract to Hughes and her driver, who’s engaged to a devout Christian, fall for each other against Hughes’ rules.
Lion (http://lionmovie.com/): This award-winning Australian drama directed by Garth Davis was the “people’s choice” runner-up at the Toronto Film Festival and also stars Dev Patel whose breakthrough role was in Slumdog Millionaire which went on to win the 2009 best picture Oscar after its Toronto festival triumph. The story begins with an impoverished Indian family when five-year-old Saroo (a great child performance by Sunny Pawar) gets separated from his older brother on a train, ending up on the streets of Kolkata where he survives on his wits until taken in by an orphanage. After being adopted by an Australian couple, the Brierleys, he grows to manhood in Tasmania. The adult Saroo (Patel) becomes determined to find his birth family using clues from Google Earth. A remarkable story of powerful emotions, it’s based on the real Saroo Brierley’s autobiographical account of his 25-year journey A Long Way Home.