First Hit: A powerful, deep, and intense look into a story rarely shared on the big screen.
Shown in three different stages of his life, the audience is given a profoundly penetrating view of a gay black man’s life journey. Chiron, also known as “Little” and “Black”, is growing up in Miami to a drug addicted mother and no father. He’s played in these three stages by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes respectively.
As “Little” (Hibbert), Chiron is often the odd boy out. He’s quiet, sullen, and feels out of place. He’s afraid to go home as his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is often high or pushing him out the door to make room for one of her many boyfriends.
He’s only got one friend of sorts, Kevin (Jaden Piner), but Kevin cannot stop the other boys from picking on him. While hiding out from bullies who were chasing him, he’s discovered in the projects by Juan (Mahershala Ali) who takes a liking to the boy and takes him in. Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) feeds the skinny scared boy. They coax him to speak but only get short bursts of two or three words at a time. Juan takes him to the beach and teaches him how to swim. The effect of Juan and Teresa’s kindness and understanding permeates the first part of the film even when they are not on the screen and shows up again towards the end of the film.
As “Chiron” (Sanders), the tones of harshness and the extreme difficulty of discovering his life, and who he is, becomes more pronounced. His mom is deeper in her addiction; his prevalent sadness is darker as he knows he’s different but has little in the way of social communication tools to help him understand himself. His only friend is still Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). The rage inside is slowly building and comes to a head.
As Black (Rhodes), a nickname given to him by Kevin, he is now an adult. You can see the effect Juan had on him by his car, attitude, and choice of supporting himself. He’s away from Miami, his mom is in a rehab, and he still living a life of being alone. He gets a call from Kevin (Andre Holland) who has been thinking of him and invites him down to Miami. Black goes and takes another step in owning his life.
Beautifully shot, the long slow scenes are left to unfold. It isn’t easy to let the camera roll staying close to an actor’s face without having the actor speak. And at times I wondered if this was smart, but then the next scene would shine light on the reasons why. Each of the actors portraying Chiron allowed the silent inward struggle come to forth; to be shown and not told. To do this, these actors had to pay attention to the director and more importantly, to the story. Each of them kept the sense of longing, unknowing, and sadness throughout the film by sharing specifically for the age being portrayed. This film is fearless in its presentation and the screenwriter and director are to be complemented for this.
Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes are each amazingly effective in their singular role. Hibbert’s sorrow and anguish as a small boy wondering why he’s different was amazing. Sanders’s teen existence is superb. He’s tall yet trying to hide from everyone including himself and yet he’d like to be seen. Sander’s is sublime. Rhodes is perfect as his self-assured exterior belies his inner soft aching. The scenes with his mother and Kevin are extraordinary. Piner, Jerome, and especially Holland are engaging and wonderful as Kevin. Ali is amazing as Juan the sensitive drug dealer who becomes a mentor of sorts for Chiron. Monae is a beautiful light in this heavy picture. Every scene she’s in she brings joy and light. Harris is effectively real as Chiron's drug addled mother who really does love her son but has no way to relate to him. Barry Jenkins had a clear vision for what he wanted and wrote an amazingly strong and daring screenplay and brought it to life with stunning direction by getting outstanding performances from everyone.
Overall: A strong emotionally effective film.