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Surviving the streets

***

Writer/director Barry Jenkins’ second feature, Moonlight, is a coming-of-age drama set in the hardscrabble milieu of modern-day Miami, focusing on one character who seeks to find his place in that world – not just as a black man but simply as a human being, one who struggles mightily with his identity throughout the narrative.

Impressively acted and conveyed with compassion and style, Moonlight is an urban story, but more along the lines of a Precious (2009) than a Boyz N the Hood (1991). The setting has been beautifully realized in James Laxton’s cinematography, and although there are some violent episodes – brief yet vivid – those aren’t what the film is about, or built around. Audiences expecting a fast-talking, rap-happy shoot-’em-up will not find that here.

The film is divided into three chapters, each named for the identity that its principal character, Chiron, adopts at different stages in his life: In “Little” he is played by Alex Hibbert (in his screen debut), in “Chrion” by Ashton Sanders, and “Black” by Trevante Rhodes. The transition is seamless, particularly between Hibbert and Sanders, as all three actors convincingly sculpt this character’s history and growth.

The bullied and withdrawn Little is taken under the wing of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a neighborhood drug dealer with a paternal streak. When Juan gets Little to open up and teaches him how to swim, the baptism symbolism is unmistakable. It is through Juan that Little is able to move forward in his own life, although perhaps in directions he did not anticipate – but were nonetheless unavoidable. Ali’s performance is so charismatic and strong that when the character departs, there is a void.

Naomie Harris, who reportedly filmed her scenes over a three-day period, is superb as Chiron’s crack-addict single mother. Appearing in all three chapters and aged in each one, Harris has only a few scenes but, like Beatrice Straight in Network (1976) or Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love (1999), makes every second meaningful. Both Straight and Dench won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actress, and this is certainly the kind of role – and quality performance – that will very likely bring Harris major acclaim.

Although occasionally preachy, this is a laudable and worthy effort. Unlike its lead character, Moonlight finds its individual identity early on, and its that distinctiveness that makes the film something special.

Grumpy old man

***

Adapted from Fredrik Backman’s international best-seller by screenwriter/director Hannes Holm and an award-winning art-house smash, A Man Called Ove (En Man Som Heter Ove) is a winning comedy/drama and a crowd-pleaser of the first order.

The title role of Ove Lindahl is played by Rolf Lassgard. Having lost his wife and walked out on his job, the ever-cantankerous curmudgeon wants nothing more than some peace and quiet while he commits suicide, but his new neighbors – to say nothing of his own clumsiness – keep getting in the way.

Inevitably, Ove will warm up to said neighbors, and through a series of flashbacks it becomes clear that Ove has very legitimate, and sometimes tragic, reasons to be so irascible and even more dismissive of the Establishment. Deep down, Ove is fundamentally decent, yet circumstances have whittled away at his idealism and compassion. Rest assured, a comeback is in store, as Ove channels his anger into more positive directions.

Gaute Storass’ bubbly score, reminiscent of Henry Mancini, nicely accentuates the film’s comic moments as well as its more dramatic and sentimental ones as well. Lassgard understandably dominates the film, but the performances by Filip Berg as young Ove and luminous Ida Engvoll as his late, lamented wife Sonja provide not only a convincing portrait of romance but also a palpable sense of older Ove’s sense of grief and loss. (In Swedish with English subtitles)

Friends and neighbors

**½

The award-winning Good Funk, which marks producer Adam Kritzer’s feature debut as writer/director, is billed as “A Polyrhythm About Kindess and Ghosts,” which is as apt a description as any.

This naturalistic drama, filmed in location in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, sees its characters intersecting in ways that might have been more meaningful had some background been provided. As it stands, we join these characters in mid-stream and mid-stride, their individual backgrounds and circumstances only hinted at. It might have been a more conventional approach, but convention isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Many of the actors on hand are fresh faces, including Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris as a single mother who’s been evicted from her home along with her precocious daughter (Leonary Shepherd). Along with his wife (Kalae Nouveau), a compassionate neighbor (co-producer William Nadylam), who’s recently lost his father, agrees to care for the girl, giving them an unexpected but not unwelcome taste of parenthood. Actor/filmmaker Larry Fessenden, the most familiar cast member, stands out in support as a sympathetic co-worker of Luqmaan-Harris’ Akifa.

Good intentions abound in Good Funk, especially considering that Kritzer essentially recruited his crew from young people in the neighborhood, and the cinematography by Gideon de Villiers (who also did exemplary work in the Kritzer-produced Lace Crater, which was de Villiers’ feature debut) is a major asset, truly capturing the ambiance of its setting. If Good Funk offers a slice of life, de Villiers’ camerawork provides a remarkable and tangible flavor.

– Good Funk will be screened 5 pm Friday at Geeksboro Coffeehouse Cinema (2134 Lawndale Drive, Greensboro). For an exclusive interview with filmmaker Adam Kritzerclick click here.

Mark Burger can be heard Friday mornings on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show on Rock-92 (92.3 FM). Copyright 2016, Mark Burger

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