A coming-of-age story that’s deeply rooted in a specific time and place (namely 1990s-era Miami), Moonlight has been garnering significant praise since debuting at the Telluride Film Festival in September and opening wider over the past few weeks. Following a young black man in three distinct stages of his life, it’s a film of stunning empathy and only the second feature that writer-director Barry Jenkins has made. To watch Moonlight is to be engulfed by its story and its lead character’s journey, to the point that this achingly beautiful tale – whatever your own life experience – becomes deeply felt and realized.
By his own admission Jenkins takes many risks throughout this movie and none more so than the casting of three different actors to play Chiron – the quiet, sensitive boy at the heart of Moonlight. Neatly chopped into three chapters, Jenkins follows Chiron at pivotal points in his life as he searches for an identity. Even the chapter titles show Chiron’s chameleonic tendencies as they use his different monikers for each vignette: “Little”, Chiron, and “Black”.
Initially played by Alex Hibbert as a child, we first glimpse Chiron being chased by bullies into an empty tenement. Withdrawn and small, everyone calls him “Little” and Chiron seems to internalize the descriptor, meeting other people’s expectations by rarely asserting himself. He’s rescued, in a way, by local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) who quickly takes a liking to him. Despite Juan’s dangerous job, he and his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monáe) represent stability in comparison to Chiron’s turbulent home life with his abusive addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris).
The second part of Moonlight traces Chiron (Ashton Sanders) – now going by his own name – through a section of high school. His torment – both internal and from cruel classmates – has grown worse as it’s clear he’s different from other boys. Chiron is reluctant to admit, even to himself, that he’s gay. One lone bright spot exists in his friend Kevin, a confident teen who – despite outward appearances and boasts – harbours the same secret as Chiron. The two share a delicate midnight tryst, a rare moment of joy for Chiron and a realization of who he really is. Life, insistent and indifferent, quickly intrudes as Chiron’s tormenters push him to a breaking point and his world pivots on a moment of thoughtless violence.
The final third finds Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) now going by the nickname “Black” and relocated from Miami to Atlanta, stuck in the same circle of trapping (selling drugs) that his one-time mentor Juan was. No longer the shy boy or long-limbed teen he once was, Chiron has bulked up after a stint in juvie and re-invented himself as a hard man. His sexuality has been further repressed as he tries to become some idealized version of a man that’s even farther from his truth. The conflict shows in his constant insomnia and lack of real human connection. Adrift in an indifferent world, a random phone call from old friend and paramour Kevin (now played by André Holland) represents a chance for reconciliation that Chiron practically leaps at.
Excelling in nearly every way a movie can, Moonlight is populated by a cast of able actors bringing a naturalistic bent to material that could otherwise slip into rote cliché in less-skilled hands. Yes, there’s a crack-addicted mother and a drug dealer with a heart of gold, but both Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali brings multiple layers to these characters that make them more than plot devices. When Chiron’s mother spits a slur at her son you feel the waves of hatred emanating from her while at the same time pitying her addiction issues. She’s not simply a toxic monster for Chiron to escape from; she’s a victim of circumstance stuck in destructive patterns and the hope is that she can break free.
Similarly, Juan represents great conflict as he tries to reconcile his inherent goodness with the fact that he’s selling crack to members of his community during a full-on epidemic. Ali is incredible in the role and his quiet scene where he describes prejudice to young Chiron is so layered and delicate that it seems like the air was sucked from the theatre and the moment was suspended in glass. Jenkins makes these scenes count by essentially bringing us inside Chiron’s state-of-mind, often shooting in close-up either in front of or behind his lead character. Combined with the operatic music, the effect is dizzying at first and incredibly intimate. In these weighted moments you can’t help but feel along with the characters.
Perhaps most difficult of all was to find a thread of consistency among the three actors who play Chiron. All acquit themselves well and do much with what little dialogue the introverted Chiron is given. Small gestures have big meanings, and there’s even traits that carry over from one chapter to the next. Trevante Rhodes doesn’t really look like the two actors who precede him, but the core of Chiron is still clearly evident. Whether it’s Little’s unfettered dancing, teen Chiron’s hesitant first kiss, or Black’s smile at seeing Kevin again, these small moments of joy peak through Chiron’s tough life and act as connective tissue.
The yearning and suppression of feelings throughout is palpable, made more real by the over-saturated colours and vividness with which Jenkins captures his characters. Whether it’s the blue glow of a full moon on dark skin or the orange streetlights bathing characters during a fateful car ride, Jenkins is working with a full palette and really makes the colours pop. He even emulates different film grades through each period, subtly shifting the visuals in the same way that the actors change from one chapter to the next. Yes, Moonlight was independently financed and tackles subject matter not often seen on screen, but it’s an art film more so because each frame is meticulously constructed and bold to look at. The pace can be meditative and light on incident, but the visuals never flag.
As a meditation on identity (both racial and sexual) and how it can shape a person’s psyche, Moonlight is full of keen insights. It depicts a strict concept of masculinity and what it means to fall outside that definition, delving into the long-lasting effects of suppressed desires and ultimately emerging with a much-needed message of hope. Chiron is asked point blank “Who is you?” multiple times and though he rarely voices an answer, Moonlight slowly lets us into his world in an unforgettable way.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Runtime: 111 minutes