It is a rare treat indeed to experience a film that lets the camera tell as much as all of the characters combined.
In the capable hands of Barry Jenkins, the tripartite story of Little (Alex Hibbert exudes equal amounts of innocence even as he convincingly becomes wiser than his years), Chiron (Ashton Sanders uses his entire body to reinforce this character’s growth from victim of taunts to dispenser of brutal—if mightily deserved—justice) and Black (muted understatement from Trevante Rhodes deftly reinforces the notion that all three men are, in fact, the same person as the transition continues) seamlessly binds the straightforward narrative (story by Tarell Alvin McCraney; Jenkins wrote it for the screen) into an emotionally rich fabric that will leave no serious filmgoer doubting that this is the story of one being’s struggle to self.
From Little’s opening dash away from the fragile boy’s schoolyard bullies, the actions and sparse dialogue have no trouble depicting his reality. And when drug dealer Juan (a wonderfully nuanced performance from Mahershala Ali) steps in to save the terrified boy, the first of an incredible array of close-ups to the eyes masterfully let one and all look long and deep into the very souls of protagonists/antagonists alike (expertly captured by cinematographer James Laxton).
Another wordless element in all three time frames is water—in particular that vast Atlantic Ocean along Miami’s coastline.
Little gets a wonderfully poignant baptism into the perils of existence from Juan’s loving hands as the young lad’s first swimming lesson provides a most welcome dose of “Yes I can!”
In Chiron’s rocky teenage years, those same waters provide the backdrop for a most sensitively captured moment of first intimacy with apparent lady’s man and best friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland are also successful in bringing the three stages of development to vivid life). Waves of desire—echoed by the real, equally relentless ones nearby—ideally complement one another.
The mature Black returns from Atlanta to the continent-connecting sea as he meets up with Kevin for the very first time since their high school embrace (and consequent vicious knockdown in a moment of betrayal experienced by far too many of the LGBTQ community in their formative years).
Once again their eyes reveal much, much more than hundreds of pages of dialogue ever could. But of those, none is more telling, stunning and—for some—uncomfortable than viewers being stared down by a little man whose only fault is to have been born with more questions than answers as to why so much of the world is uneasy in his innocent presence. JWR