Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a beautiful heartbreaking exploration of identity that is both masterfully told and exquisitely shot. And it’s a character driven film that’s surprisingly artistic as well. It’s one of those rare times a movie sticks with you long after you’ve left the theater. Moonlight tackles a myriad of themes (identity, sexuality, family, and being a man) but doesn’t preach.
The film is divided into three chapters- “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black.” These are the names our main character is referred to as he goes through childhood to being a grown up. Throughout his life, Chiron is struggling to find out what it means to be “masculine” and ultimately a man.
We begin the film, and see Chiron as a boy or as he called by other kids “Little” (Alex Hibbert). We see Little being chased into a boarded up Miami apartment complex by kids who want to beat him senseless. Little is followed into the apartment complex by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local thug/drug dealer. Juan develops a quick connection with the boy, takes him out to eat, and even introduces him to his girlfriend, Teresa. Little is left speechless by the kindness shown by these two as his home life is the embodiment of hell. His mom Paula (Naomie Harris) is a crack addict and is more concerned about getting her next fix than taking care of her son for more than five minutes. Juan wants to make Chiron’s life better because he feels guilty being indirectly involved in the very thing that’s ruining his life.
The film moves to Chiron as a teenager, and he’s dealing with non stop teasing and questions of his sexuality. Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is struggling to find who he is in a pubescent world teeming with sex. His home life is far worse. His mother is gone for days at a time. He has nothing. Even his friendship with Kevin(Jharrel Jerome) seemingly comes with conditions. Eventually, he breaks and lashes out the only way he can, with violence.
The film concludes with Chiron as a man (Trevante Rhodes). Kevin (Andre Holland) contacts Chiron and wishes to atone for past mistakes he’s made. In a sense, Moonlight is a coming of age film for not only Chiron but for all the principle characters. Juan goes from street thug to caring parental figure. Kevin grows from a pubescent boy to a man seeking to atone for the past. The only who hasn’t figured it all out yet is Chiron. Chiron morphs from a confused boy to stringy looking middle schooler who is destined for college to a ripped street thug named “Black” who deals just like Juan did. These aren’t who Chiron truly are but who he had to be to survive, and that’s what makes Moonlight so incredibly sad.
One of the highlights of the film was the incredible job that was done to cast all three actors that played Chiron. Each performance was its unique interpretation of who he was at that point in his life. While each portrayal showed Chiron had grown, it showed where Chiron had flaws as well. What’s remarkable is the fluidity of the film. It’s easy for a movie to seem choppy when it’s divided into three acts like this one but Jenkins manages to balance each act into a remarkable ensemble piece that’s equally powerful and poignant.
The settings play a major role in the film. The beaches around Miami serve as an escape for Chiron from his violent home/personal lives. It even acts as a backdrop for one of the most important scenes in the film between Chiron and Kevin. It seems that when they are surrounded by the sound of the water crashing into the shore that they can truly be themselves and not what the world wants them to be.
Jenkins does tremendous work in adapting this narrative from its source material (It’s based on a play entitled ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’). While there are certainly memorable moments of dialogue, it was the moments of silence that stood out. Sometimes a look of astonishment as your mother spirals down a drug induced wormhole or a glance between two young men who are scared of who they are is incredibly powerful.
At its core, Moonlight is a sad window into a part of our society that feel the most pressure to conform to what some would call “societal” norms. For example, in all three acts, the question of being a “man” comes up. In the first act, “Little” doesn’t fit in with the other kids and play sports the way they do. Kevin comes up to “Little” and whispers to him that he needs to get into a fight with him so that the other kids will accept him more. He doesn’t want to do this but goes along with it. In the second act “Chiron,” he’s facing pressures to conform to the overtly sexual world that is Middle School by telling everyone that he has “been” with a woman, which is a lie. Still facing teasing from the other kids, he reverts to the only thing that he thinks will make him seem “manly” and that’s violence. In the last act, “Black,” Chiron transforms himself to a “ripped” thug who can intimidate other just by his appearance. However, he doesn’t become a “man” till he starts being true to himself.