Moonlight is a mesmerizing film that follows the transition from childhood to adulthood of a young black man living in a rough neighborhood in Miami as he comes to terms with his sexuality. I absolutely loved the movie from start to finish and I felt each of the segments was masterful in terms of style and movingly profound in terms of content. Thanks to Berry Jenkins' artfully intimate direction and screenplay, Moonlight is at turns devastating and heartwarming, and James Laxton should win the Oscar for Cinematography as his work here is absolutely beautiful, with such an excellent use of lighting. The scene at the beach is among the most realistic and tender scenes of the year. The movie also features a terrific ensemble full of great performances.
Juan is the first character to appear in the movie - we follow him as he walks around and then, through his brief exchange with a young boy, we get to know he is a drug dealer. Ali is terrific in this early moment as in just a couple of lines he conveys the character's background and lifestyle - he has a deep understanding of Juan and he just inhabits the character with impressive realism and naturalism. He is so effortless he never seems to be acting and his initial moment is especially perfect because with it he manages to set the realistic, gritty tone of the rest of the movie. His brief exchange with the guy is interrupted by a group of kids who are chasing after a small, meek young boy, Chiron (Alex Hibbert, impressively spontaneous). Sympathetic towards his plight, Juan helps him and takes him out to lunch: Ali is just wonderful in these scenes as he exudes such a lovely amount of natural warmth in his portrayal and he is very effective at portraying Juan's genuine concern for Chiron. What I especially love about Ali's performance is just how three-dimensional and realistic his approach is - he never makes Juan a clichè, he never turns him into a saint or a savior and he is never too judgemental nor too indulgent regarding his activity as a drug dealer: he does not shy away from Juan's less honorable quality, he just makes him a good-natures, altruistic person who is not defined by his profession. He never oversimplifies Juan, instead he captures all of his complexities and contradictions. And on top of that he has an incredibly charismatic screen-presence - with his charming and laidback manners and his welcoming smile, he makes Juan an instantly likeable and endearing presence, and one that you simply love having on-screen.
As the story progresses, Juan's relationship with Chiron deepens and Juan becomes a father-like figure to him. Their moments together, although relatively limited, are all wonderful as the two actors share a sweet, powerful chemistry which reaches a particularly moving heights in the scene in which Juan teaches Chiron how to swim. Again, Ali couldn't be warmer in this scene and his performance along with the cinematography is what makes this sequence truly special and poignant. This scene is followed by a brief moment in which Ali explains his philosophy to Chiron, telling him that at one point of their life everyone needs to choose their own path for themselves: it's a brief moment but nonetheless a beautiful one that Ali plays with the needed wisdom and experience, conveying through his words Juan's history.
Some of Ali's strongest scenes come at the end of his performance. One of the most impressive is probably the one in which he finds Chiron's mother (Naomie Harris) smocking crack in a nearby crack, and he lashes out at her for being such a neglectful parent to Chiron: Ali is simply fantastic at showing his character's rage and disapproval, but also his shame and guilt when she tells him that he is just as responsible for her behavior as he is the one who sold the drugs to her. Ali is truly heartbreaking at portraying his realization that he has no excuses as he too is undirectly responsible for the troubles in Chiron's life, but he's even more powerful in his final scene, in which Chiron comes to visit him, which is one of the movie's highlight. Ali is amazing in this last moment as he firmly tells Chiron that, even if he might turn out to be gay, he should never allow people to make him feel bad for it, conveying beautifully the affection and support Juan has come to feel for the kid. Then, when Chiron questions him about his profession, Ali couldn't be more devastating in his quiet and restrained display of shame.
Unfortunately, Ali doesn't appear anymore after the movie's first act but this does not diminish his impact at all. His mesmerizing, layered and charismatic performance makes Juan one of the most moving characters of the movie and he embodies all of the complexities of the role despite not having that much screen time. Ali puts his heart in this role and gives a compelling, warm and moving portrayal that is simply impossible to forget.