This is the story of a lifetime.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ first feature in eight years — following his critically acclaimed 2008 hit, Medicine for Melancholy — Moonlight chronicles the life of a contemporary African American man growing up in the thuggish Liberty City housing project located in South Florida, Miami. Grafting a powerfully poetic coming-of-age story, which spans over two decades, the film trails a meek 10-year old boy, Chiron, from his rough-and-tumble childhood all the way to his maturity, spotlighting the profound moments in his vulnerable formative years and the decisive junctures that ultimately shape his fate, the narrative fearlessly exploring themes of race, gender identity and masculinity — more specifically, what it means to be a ‘man’ in the impoverished black community, and the expectations that come with this.
Based on the short play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, filmmaker Jenkins, having adapted the material for the screen, has rearranged the story’s non-linear structure, dividing it into three distinct subsections — ‘Little,’ ‘Chiron’ and ‘Black’ (each after the boy’s respective name at the time), think chapters of a novella. Starting out quite strong, Jenkins introduces the protagonist’s bold voice in a grippingly heartfelt way. Viewers meet Chiron at age-10 (played by Alex R. Hibbert), nicknamed Little for his timid personality and wee size, hiding from a swarm of bullies in a derelict, rundown apartment building. Having to endure constant ridicule from the bigger kids, we soon learn that the introverted youngster, who resides in a tough urban neighborhood, is also being neglected by his maltreating drug-addict single-mother, Paula (an outstanding Naomie Harris). With little in the way of guidance, Chiron befriends a sympathetic crack cocaine dealer, Juan (played brilliantly by House of Cards (2013) star Mahershala Ali), whose home soon becomes a sanctuary of sorts for Chiron, a place far away from the harshness of his own reality.
Although ‘hardened’ and ‘tough’ on the exterior, Juan is somewhat tender and nurturing, giving the child advice on sexuality (albeit blunt and abrasive) — there’s a gentle scene that sees Chiron ask what it means to be a ‘faggot,’ a slur commonly hurled at him by the other kids — while Juan’s eternally affectionate girlfriend, Teresa (played by singer-songwriter Janelle Monáe), showers the boy with tender maternal care, becoming a sort of surrogate mother for the jilted child. In this section, audiences also get a glimpse into Chiron’s budding friendship with a similar aged Cuban-American boy named Kevin (Jaden Piner), a relationship that will forever alter his life. All in all, this is one deeply moving, powerhouse of an opener.
When we next run into Little, he’s grown out, having become a lanky adolescent who’s no longer smaller than his peers. However, at age 16, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is still a target of severe torment and bullying, dished out by the hooligans at his school. By far the most impactful slice of the picture, this middle serving sees Chiron, while still shy and distrustful, begin to open up — a sexual encounter on a moonlit beach with long-time pal Kevin (here played by Jharrel Jerome) stands out as a definite turning point, while fighting back against those who had harmed him (both physically and emotionally) teaches the teenaged Chiron a thing or two about violence, and how brutal retaliation can be just as dangerous as remaining voiceless or failing to act. Needless to say, this transformative chapter is simply sensational.
Finally, the concluding segment looks at Chiron in his adult years (portrayed by the talented Trevante Rhodes) who, living just outside of Atlanta, now goes by the title of ‘Black.’ Muscled and street-savvy, due to the repercussions of his youth, this young-adult incarnation leads a similar life to that of Juan, selling drugs on the streets and alleyways, fortifying himself to maintain a certain reputation. However, a seemingly random phone call from Kevin (now played by André Holland), whom Chiron hadn’t seen in years, compels the somewhat reluctant 30-year-old to venture back to Miami and face his inner fears, Chiron still struggling with his repressed homosexuality.
Compassionate, conversational, raw and real, Moonlight is as a masterful piece of cinema. Candidly exploring one man’s journey of self-discovery, the story is presented through the eyes of a volatile child born into deprivation and destitute, who’s trying to come to terms with his own sexuality (as a black man residing in Miami’s ‘ghetto’). Destined to resonate with audiences of all genders and ages, Moonlight explores certain universal truths — love, loneliness, longing and heartache — in a manner that is both disarming yet brutally honest, the movie also commenting on the importance of forming meaningful human connections. Making telling statements on diversity and acceptance, whilst dealing with heavy topics of abuse and addiction, along with the headships of grappling with one’s true self (Chiron’s desires going against ‘block’ established codes), Moonlight is never preachy or pretentious, Jenkins often choosing to dwell in long silences and moments of tantalizing stillness, which hammer home some hard-hitting messages, these working as the film’s biggest virtue. Empathetic, poignant and challenging, Moonlight is a movie that’s not afraid to be unconventional.
Overflowing with superbly nuanced performances, Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes — the trio of actors playing Chiron — convey authentic emotion in a subduedly rousing and unfiltered way, the transition between leads almost seamless, with the support cast giving it their absolute all, too. Likewise, gifted filmmaker Jenkins has translated this simple tale of growing-up in an extraordinary life-like manner, the film enhanced by the visual flair of cinematographer James Laxton, Camp X-Ray (2014), whose alluring, dreamlike imagery renders Miami as a ‘beautiful nightmare,’ juxtaposing the city’s darker and lighter shades. Moreover, Laxton’s skill behind the camera helps to create a sense of calm and chaos, the latter generated by nervous circling manoeuvres which add visceralness and fluidity where required, all of this aided by the organic and sharp editing of Nat Sanders, Short Term 12 (2013), and Joi McMillon, Sausage Party (2016). Similarly, the score by Nicholas Britell, The Big Short (2015), which filters through the images naturally, is a hypnotic mix of hip-hop beats and mesmeric orchestra — these diverse sounds ranging from thunderous and menacing to quiet and classical — all derived from the unfolding drama.
For all its triumphs, though, Moonlight does falter ever so slightly, particularly when it comes to the content of the film’s phases. While each is no doubt abundantly rich and satisfying, the omission of certain events (such as Juan’s ultimate fate, which would have certainly impacted Chiron’s formation) make proceedings feel very much ‘abbreviated,’ the leap between the second (ii) and third (iii) portions a tad too far apart, too. When we see Chiron in the third chapter he’s changed so much so that, at first glance, he’s virtually unrecognizable, as is his mother, going from a chronic, compulsive and dependent drug user to a reformed addict now living in a treatment facility; I, for one, would have loved to have seen the transition of both these characters play out on screen.
Timeless, touching and uplifting, Moonlight’s bountiful complexities make it an inspiring, tenderly heartfelt spectacle, and undeniably one of the year’s very best — even if we’re still only in January. It’s no secret that this commanding motion picture has scored a plethora of Academy Award nominations — being a frontrunner for both Best Picture and Best Director, the Oscar’s most prominent categories — but I guess this signals an affirmation of sorts, writer-director Jenkins aligning the spirit of Moonlight with that of cinema itself, Jenkins claiming that film, as a medium, ‘has the power to erode barriers and reveal what makes us all human.’ And Moonlight does exactly that — it makes us feel.
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by S-Littner