Moonlight is a film that strives to be different. It tells a story that has been told before. Yet, it shows a side of that story we rarely see. It is a story you know, but with a major twist. This is simply put a story, and a good one at that. Moonlight drew rave reviews for its handling of topical issues and exploring themes a majority of people have a hard time truly understanding like homosexuality and poverty. This film tells that story in such a unique way, and unlike anything I’ve never seen before on film. Director Barry Jenkins’s harrowing, heartbreaking and poignant film not only breaks new ground cinematically, it crushes every stereotype along the way of this type of film. Moonlight is one of the years best films and one of the most interesting explorations of character in recent memory
The film follows the story of a young African-American named Chiron. Chiron lives a troubled life in a rough Miami neighborhood. Moonlight follows Chiron though three stages in his life, youth, adolescence and adulthood. Growing up, Chiron befriends a drug dealer (played by House of Cards’s Mahershala Ali) named Juan. His mother (Naomie Harris) becomes addicted to drugs and neglect him. While Chiron spends most of his youth and some of his adolescence with Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), he struggled with bullies, his sexuality and his rapidly shattering home life. He only finds solace in his Cuban-American friend Kevin. The aforementioned Jenkins also wrote the screenplay for this film.
Moonlight‘s boundaries as a film are very clear. It is broken up into three distinctive acts following Chiron through his journey from youth to adulthood. As child, Chiron, nicknamed “Little” by one of his friends, struggles with an increasingly devolving home life. Chiron is ultimately played by three different actors over the course of the film, but none better than the young boy who plays him in the first act. Chiron is a tortured soul and there are several heartbreaking scenes in this stage of this film. One in particular features Chiron sitting with Juan and Teresa at the dinner table. Chiron asks about sexuality and what he is. Juan tells him he doesn’t have to know that right now. In this scene and throughout the film Barry Jenkins expertly uses close ups. The camera centers on Juan’s face as Chiron verbally expresses his curiosity on the idea of someone being gay. Juan’s heart is breaking, and Jenkins wants taudience to feel it. In a way, Jenkins uses these close up shots to show us not only the characters emotions but rather lets us as a viewer peer into their souls.
Among the heart breaking moments, there is beauty lying within this film. Juan and Chiron share a moment that allows Chiron for just a moment to relieve his pain. Chiron learns to float on the water with the help of Juan. It is a metaphorically beautiful sequence. Chiron floats in the water, and for that moment, he is care free. As we transition throughout the stages of his life, things become increasingly hectic. His mom is decaying and now worse than ever, the bullies are coming to him. But it in all the madness, Chiron again gets a moment of levity with Kevin.
Jenkins doesn’t shy away from the paradoxes of life in this broken community. Juan confronts Chiron’s mother Paula on the street which he deals drugs. Juan tells Paula her crack addiction is harming her parenting. Paula, and we as an audience see the immediate contradiction in his accusation. It is Juan who selling them and other mothers drugs. The tragic revelation in Juan’s life has been unearthed. He, in theory, is responsible for Chiron.
Amidst the metaphors and pitiful quality of life for all involved lies the incredible film making. Jenkins’s direction is solid and he keeps the film moving along. He doesn’t need to use melodrama. The story of those involved is already dramatic enough. Instead, Jenkins, and his screenplay, rely on the characters and his actors to tell this story. It is a sorrowful and gut wrenching story that Jenkins pulls out of his actors.
The acting is some of the best in a film this year. Mahershala Ali in particular is outstanding. He gives a subtle, nuanced performance which is the best of his career thus far. Each of the three actors who play Chiron, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, are all brilliant. The embodiment of Chiron is portrayed so flawlessly by these three that the transition to the stages of his life are fluid. Naomie Harris is excellent as well as Paula.
Moonlight is undoubtedly one of the best films ever made on the subject of poverty and sexuality. Chiron’s sexuality is at the center of the film. The film looks at the complicated nature of self-discovery and paving your own path. Something Chiron is reminded about time after time. It is a layered and beautiful film that will stick with you for a long while. Moonlight seems destined to become an important film in the compilation of queer cinema. Flat out, it is one of the most moving films of the year.