This is a film that I was driven to see entirely because of the reviews, word of mouth and buzz surrounding it. The subject matter is so out of my wheelhouse as to be in another city not just in another neighborhood. It’s not that I am uninterested in stories about diverse cultures, but drug dealing and homosexuality seem like an odd mix, and the last time they were in a film I remember seeing was “Less than Zero”, which involved white suburbanites from economically well to do families, and I did not care for it almost thirty years ago, how would a much older and more cynical man be able to appreciate this? As it turns out, pretty well. I can certainly admire the movie and I think I have found themes in the film that were there for us to discover, but I may have brought some of my own along with me.
For anyone unfamiliar with the title, it is a three part story chronicling the life a boy who grows to adulthood, with a lengthy stop over in adolescence. As a child, Chiron, is known as “Little” and his story starts when he encounters a man who becomes a mentor/savior/role-model. The curveball the film throws at us is that man is a drug dealer. Juan, is maybe the most sympathetic character in the whole film, but he is not a perfect person and if we can’t believe his story, nothing else in the movie will make any sense. Mahershala Ali is an actor I’m sure I have encountered in other projects, but never in a role as memorable for me at least as this. He is hard in the ways you expect someone in that profession is likely to be, but he manages to be a three dimensional person and not just a stereotype. One of the themes that I get from the film is that we all need to think about who people are and not just what they are. Juan takes an interest in Little almost by accident, but he sees some of himself in the child. His open minded acceptance of what Little might become seems at odds with the thug culture that is usually shown to us in movies, and it is that perspective that makes the film valuable. Even though Juan only exists in the first third of the movie, we will feel his presence for the rest of the story.
Little is put upon by school mates and his own mother, an excellent Naomi Harris. The harm that the drug culture can do to people who are not the users themselves will be evident to everyone. People who think it is a victim-less crime have never lived with or loved an addict. Even at a young age, while his Mom appears to be holding it together, Little senses that something in his life is wrong. When your only role model is a compassionate man who also happens to deal death and misery to weak souls, you are bound to be conflicted. This whole film is a character study that plays out as if it were a stage drama. The pacing and dialogue feel thoughtful and deliberate, in a way that is almost antithetical to modern films. There is nothing in the film except one scene that could not be told on the stage. The framing of the characters and the use of the camera is not startling or inventive but it is efficient in focusing on the characters. The one sequence that would be difficult to do on stage however is a pivotal one that has implications in the rest of the film. Juan teaches Little to swim in the ocean when they visit the beach. It is a moment that is freeing to our main character, and it is the start of his realization that he can be many things, some of which he has not imagined yet.
Another example of the stagebound nature of the story is the use of three acts and the black screen transitions between the sections. Even though there are subtitles that identify our character by different names at each stage of his life, the numbering that accompanies those names just reminds us that this is a signpost for the next stage of the story. The middle section concerns the life of Chiron in high school. He is a quiet kid who is bullied primarily because he is seen as soft. Kids “gaydar” becomes a justification for petty humiliations and brutal shows of machismo. Chiron had one friend other than Juan as a kid. Kevin is a bit of a nonconformist, who helps Chiron manage the world on occasion. Kevin however has his own weaknesses and those become devastating in multiple ways on his friend. This is the second major relationship of the three segments and it is the one that grows the most over Chiron’s life story. This is a movie that tries very hard to tell an authentic story about troubled youth without simply imposing a cultural stereotype in for the purpose of diversity. These characters, as unfamiliar to someone from such a different background as I, feel organic. This is a genuine story of a culture not a fable tailored to an ethnic group. That is the thing that I most appreciated about the movie.
The actors who portray the two growing boys throughout the lifespan of the film do a tremendous job creating personality for their characters. The three who portray Kevin move him from a light hearted second banana to a central figure in the life of his friend. The serious portrayal in the last sections necessary to sell the denouement of those characters arcs. Chiron, now known as Black, is portrayed by a man who clearly has devoted serious time to sculpting his body. The desire on the part of the character to redefine himself simply means that he molds himself into the most accessible form from his life experience. The physical differences are dramatic but the personality ticks and non-verbal references are all consistent which makes the transformation seem real again.
This is a very good character piece that is well acted and performed. The direction does emphasize the staginess of some of the conflict, but it never detracts from the story. We can all learn to be a little more patient and thoughtful about the people we encounter or even simply read about if we take the time to see films like this. I can’t say it is one of my favorites, simply because as interesting as it was the first time, I don’t think it will hold the same level of fascination for me at least on subsequent viewings. There is much to admire in the film, but not much to love. It will earn and deserve many accolades, but I’m afraid that it will simply be a part of my movie history, rather than a defining point in that history. That’s just my take, some of you will be able to take away more.