With delicate and clear-eyed grace, Moonlight quietly but confidently packs a major punch. In chronicling the coming-of-age of a sexually conflicted African-American male, this breathtaking new movie tackles themes of masculinity, sexuality and class. Many of which have been mined for the cinema many times before, but rarely with the lyricism, guttural emotional control and assured hand that writer-director Barry Jenkins brings here. Taking roots from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue comes a beautifully distilled and passionate piece of cinema. One that in its remarkable specificity manages to be ever universal and both topical and timeless at once.
Separated into three parts, Moonlight tells the story of Chiron – first as a tentative kid resentful of the nickname “Little” (Alex Hibbert), second as an insecure teenager (Ashton Sanders) and third as a hardened yet emotionally closed-up adult who has adopted the nickname “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). Raised by his drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris) in a rough Miami neighborhood, his father long gone (and potentially even unknown), Chiron tends to drift and retreat, in all three aspects of his coming-of-age, but longs for stability and human connection. The power of the movie comes in the instant relatability of his plight, an idea of the effects on the psyche the comes from being labelled “different” from a young age.
With authoritative poise and remarkable sensitivity Jenkins’ camera – aided by the artful lens of director of photography James Laxton – observes Chiron with a clear, fly-on-the-wall alertness. While there’s echoes of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and a Terrence Malick-like sense of quiet inquisition afoot, Moonlight uniquely feels like a work that stands a part and alone as a poetic tapestry of one man’s search for his own identity – sexually, racially and culturally. Within the three sections – each beautifully and artfully anchored by the talents of Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes, respectively – what’s remarkable within Moonlight is the clarity of what’s said in between the lines and the natural progression of Chiron’s forge towards adulthood. Chiron, as a character, is one of few words – taciturn, unsure, shy – and one that’s both knowable and not even within specific scenes, yet Jenkins and the present poise of his actors artfully communicate a fully observed person searching for some kind of human connection.
One earlier source of connection comes in Juan (a commanding Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who meets Little by happenstance. Juan gifts Chiron with a patience, kindness and a source of masculine confidence and quickly but naturally appears as a paternal surrogate. Likewise, Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe, sublime), a straight-talking beacon of maternal tenderness, builds Chiron up in a way Paula cannot. Its speaks volumes of Jenkins’ non-judgmental and humane tone that Moonlight never turns any of its characters into villains or reductive caricatures. Even Paula, for all her failings as a responsible parent, is given loving respites as a woman who, while at odds, longs to connect with her son; Harris’ raw and impassioned performance radiates from the love of mother for a child can’t quite see clearly.
Another, and the most vital, connection for Chiron is his long-childhood friend Kevin (played by Jaden Piner as a youngster). Chiron’s only long-standing friend, we first meet them as children as Kevin urges him to stand up for himself – the sequence itself plays like a powerful boys-will-be-boys ballad. As teenagers, their relationship builds and becomes even more complicated (fresh-faced Jharrel Jerome takes over the role of Kevin) and romantic. On this end, Jenkins and his performers beautifully handle the sometimes-awkward, sometimes exciting curiosity of adolescence; an evening seaside sequence is one of the most entrancing and romantic in recent screen history. The final part of this tripych shows the strains and realities of adulthood settling in, but the relationship between Chiron and Kevin (now played by André Holland, The Knick) continues to evolve and deepen, suggesting that even as a complicated past has separated them, they’re story – however it may turn out to be in the end – is still being written.
Chiron’s story glides and flows at a meditative but undeniably soulful pace. As the movie shifts towards various points of entry – be it that of queer, racial or class identity – there’s a near seductive simmer to the filmmaking itself; the film’s setting, for one, in its specificity offers more than a suggestion that this could be set nearly anywhere as isolation and longing knows no borders. As lived-in as Moonlight looks, sounds and feels and as elegantly stitched and artfully rendered as the film is, Moonlight wouldn’t hold nearly as much emotional power if the tone of the film strayed towards the overly melodramatic or dogmatic. Jenkins’ canvas looms large and grows ever poignant as the film reaches its crescendo, but he carefully and tightly keeps the focus aligned with Chiron. Reminiscent of recent queer greats like Brokeback Mountain and Carol, Moonlight maintains its point and its edge by honestly examining its characters rather than calling out and politicizing the big, bad world in which they reside.
Which may perhaps by why Moonlight arises as one of the more hopeful cinematic offerings in some time. Just as Chiron and Kevin reacquaint as adults – in an exquisitely modulated slow burner radiating on the natural chemistry of Rhodes and Holland – there’s a hopeful refrain throughout that a remarkable and remarkably human story will continue to unfold.
A tremendous piece of work. Told with expert precision, economy and an uncommon thoughtfulness of the human condition, Moonlight will surely go down as one of the year’s finest achievements. One that features searing, passionate and beautifully connected acting from an extraordinary group of actors, many of whom appearing on screen for the very first time. One that quietly but persuasively asserts director Barry Jenkins as filmmaker with his eyes, ears and heart on the pulse of today’s woes, desires and hopes. And finally, one that may, if audiences are willing to succumb to its gentle but poetic grace, allow us all to understand one another just a little bit better.