Director: Barry Jenkins
Writers: Barry Jenkins (screenplay), Tarell Alvin McCraney (story by)
Stars: Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, Duan Sanderson, Alex Hibbert
A touching and poignant drama chronicling three distinct stages of a young man’s life in the unlikeliest of environments. Barry Jenkins’ film he co-wrote with Tarell Alvin McCraney (the writer of the play it’s based on) is rightly tipped to take away at least a couple of Oscars this year.
In the 1990s, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is a shy, withdrawn kid who’s hiding from bullies when he’s found by Juan (Ali) in an abandoned apartment. Nicknaming Chiron ‘Little’ because of his diminutive size and quiet nature, Juan takes a liking to the boy and takes him back to his house where his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae) feeds the boy and they both let him spend the night when he refuses to tell them where he lives.
In the morning Juan is given a glimpse of why Little is so withdrawn when he takes the boy back to his emotionally abusive, crack addict mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). The twist in the tale is that Juan deals crack indirectly to Paula through one of his street-level dealers. When Juan discovers Paula buying and smoking crack he confronts her, feeling frustrated for Little’s lot in life. But she hits back at him, reminding that he’s the one who sells it to her.
Juan’s feelings for Little grow from being charmed and pitying the boy to genuine affection, teaching him to swim and giving him life lessons. He also listens to the boy, probably a first for both of them. Little, piecing together parts of his life, realizes that his mother is an addict and that the closest thing he has to a father figure is the one who’s helping her destroy her and her son’s life. The usually bold and brazen Juan is left humbled and hangs his head when Little confronts him with his conclusions.
But there’s something else at play here. Little isn’t just dealing with his precarious home life, bullies and a new surrogate mom and dad. He’s also troubled by the horrible names his tormentors call him. When he asks Juan and Teresa what a “faggot” is, Juan handles the situation in a wonderfully calm and nurturing way, far from the stereotypical way 1990s African Americans from the Projects are usually portrayed in cinema. When Little asks if that’s what he is, Juan reassures him that, although he may be gay, no one gets to call him that.
As the film moves into Chiron’s (now portrayed by Ashton Sanders) adolescence, we see that he’s abandoned his cute nickname and Juan dead. We also see that his mother’s addiction has worsened and she’s now fully dependent on drugs, often prostituting herself and manipulating her son for money. Chiron is still being bullied, but the intimidation is more sinister. The one solace is Chiron’s life is his friendship with his childhood friend Kevin. Chiron is often uneasy around his friend until, one night they smoke a blunt, kiss and share a tender moment under the moonlight.
Not long after Chiron’s respite from his troubled life, his tormentors coerce Kevin into picking a fight with him, tainting the one good thing he has. Kevin violently beats him, Chiron not fighting back. Finally having enough, he goes after the main bully and smashes a chair over his back, leading him to be arrested and just another statistic from the Projects. As he’s led away he stares at Kevin, totally dejected by his friend’s betrayal.
We return to Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) as a physically imposing adult. He’s no longer the scared little boy or the wiry teenager, but a hardened and hulking tattooed adult with a grill and an attitude. Going by the name ‘Black’ (the nickname Kevin gave to him as a teenager) he now deals drugs. Paula is now living in a drug treatment facility and frequently calls Chiron, begging his forgiveness. After a tough exchange face-to-face and a lot of honesty and repentance from Paula, Chiron finally forgives his mother, leaving him feeling free of a lot of the baggage he has carried for most of his life.
As the film draws to a subtle and tender finale, we get to reflect on the beautifully, kaleidoscopic, tragic and poignant life of a troubled gay man from the Projects. Barry Jenkins delivers a wonderfully bright and positive message from the unlikeliest of sources.
The three actors who played Chiron are cast perfectly. Young Hibbert, a baby in comparison to his older selves, is delightfully naive and scared of his big, bad world. Sanders takes that pain from his childhood into desperation and a longingness for something better, a connection. Rhodes delivers the tragedy in abundance. The juxtaposition of the imposing, menacing Chiron and his secret life as a man struggling to find his place is heartbreaking and heartfelt. Rhodes delivers just short of melancholy and takes you right to the edge of hope, leaving you to will for our hero to have the life he deserves.
A surefire tip to take home a couple of statues.