A monumental achievement that won’t soon be forgotten.
It’s been said that Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ astonishing new film about the life of a young, black, gay man growing up in Miami, might not be for some audiences. That they won’t be able to identify with a gay love story with an all-black cast, one in which the two kindest, most relatable characters are drug dealers. But provided they keep both heart and mind wide open, almost anyone will be mesmerized by Moonlight.
The film follows the life of Chiron, a black youth in Miami, from age nine into his twenties. Like Richard Linklater’s wonderful Boyhood, Moonlight touches base with Chiron at various points of his life. Unlike Boyhood, Moonlight restricts this to three occasions and uses different actors to portray Chiron at each age. At nine, Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) is an innocent youngster, discovered in a drug den while seeking refuge from bullies and his drug-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), by drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan takes Chiron, who goes by the nickname “Little,” under his wing, and eventually Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (singer-actress Janelle Monáe) become surrogate parents for the boy, who is troubled by his mother’s addiction and by the bullies, who frequently hurl gay slurs at him.
This opening act also introduces us to Little’s friend Kevin (Jaden Piner), who will play an important role in Chiron’s life as the years go by. But the focus is on Juan and Chiron’s relationship in the first part of the film, and Ali and Hibbert make the pair’s connection immediately believable and powerful. After a painful confrontation with Paula, the film jumps forward to Chiron’s teenage life. For Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders), the bullying has gotten violent, a key person is missing from his life and Paula’s addiction has worsened, leaving him in a constant stream of torment. One of the few bright spots is his friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), now a ladies’ man and class prankster. Chiron’s suffering at the hands of his mother and his bullies makes up the focus here, though a sensitively-filmed scene with Kevin on the beach sets the stage for things to come.
The third act follows adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now known as “Black,” who has followed in Juan’s footsteps and is now a drug dealer in Atlanta. His confident demeanor is a world away from the shy, tormented character from the second part of the film, but in quiet moments we see that he is still the same sensitive, thoughtful Chiron. He interacts with his mother in a devastating scene, and receives a call from Kevin (André Holland) who he hasn’t seen in years. Inspired, Black hits the road and heads back to Miami, where he meets Kevin in the diner where Kevin works as a cook, a skill he picked up in jail. This third section is dominated by their connection at Kevin’s dingy diner, and all of the film’s moving pieces slide together for a beautiful, romantic and moving conclusion.
Moonlight thrills because it surprises at every turn with suspense, tragedy and quite a bit of humor, which is unusual for so serious of a drama. Just when the plot leads audiences towards a seemingly obvious conclusion, it pivots, believably and constructively delivering shocking twists. It is simultaneously a gorgeously textured art film (evoking the aforementioned Boyhood, as well as the films of Wong Kar-Wai and Linklater’s Before trilogy), a stirring romance and an exploration of black Miami. It is notable that Moonlight features an all-black cast, is written and directed by an black man and is based off a play by a black man (Tarell Alvin McCraney’s In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue).
Jenkins’ direction is confident and experimental. It’s thrilling to see him coax such fine performances out of the three actors who play Chiron, as he did not allow the actors to meet because he wanted to show how much a man could change over the course of his youth. Still, he’s connected the dots, and all three iterations of Chiron are effectively linked to the others. Nicholas Britell’s score and James Laxton’s cinematography are stunning. The cinematography takes the unique approach of changing dramatically in each of the film’s three sections. In the first, much of the filming is done-in handheld “shaky-cam” style, evoking the confusion and overwhelming nature of youth. The camerawork in Chiron’s teenage years is self-conscious and sharp, mimicking our protagonist’s own attitude. And his adulthood is depicted warmly and confidently with bursts of dreamlike moments both haunting and beautiful, showing us Black’s life in the way he himself has built it.
Moonlight’s performances are its strongest asset. The flashiest performance and the one bound to receive the most attention is turned in by Naomie Harris, who has finally been given a role to match the talent she has displayed since first bursting onto the scene almost 15 years ago in 28 Days Later…. She’s also the only actor present in all three of the film’s sections. As Paula, she is horrible, beguiling, disgusting, tragic, cruel and relatable. As Juan, Ali oozes warmth, compassion and kindness; Monáe dazzles in her live-action film debut; and Jerome and Holland, as teenaged Kevin and adult Kevin, respectively, both excellently portray the character’s lightheartedness in contrast to the far more serious Chiron.
But this is Chiron’s story, and the three actors that portray him turn in the film’s most powerful performances. Jenkins obviously emphasized the importance of small movements and expressions over words and all three actors took this to heart, portraying pages of depth and feeling with single looks. This is a particular achievement when considering how at odds the black community and gay community (specifically the Hollywood gay community, which is overwhelming white) can often be. All three of these actors give brave and bold performances, portraying the same person while still remaining distinctive.
Moonlight is an instant classic, regardless of how many Oscars it wins or how many dollars it brings in. It’s the rare movie that is both important and beautifully made. In that sense, it is similar to Brokeback Mountain and Boyz n the Hood but makes for a warmer and more sensitive film than either of those. This is a monumental achievement that won’t soon be forgotten.