I was intrigued by Moonlight’s concept, a chronicle of the life of young black man told in three acts as he struggles to find his place in the world. I thought it was a unique way to tell a story, much like a classical theater piece but I questioned if the story would hold up and be coherent within those three acts. I felt that the movie realized its potential and was a beautiful story with universal appeal.
Moonlight follows Chiron from childhood to adulthood, growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood. He must navigate the harsh truths of his life while struggling to find his identity and discover his sexuality. It begins with a slow unveiling of who he is as a child, struggling with a mother (Naomie Harris) who does drugs. Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) is befriended by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who finds Chiron hiding out in a drug hole, having run away from the bullies who have chased him. He doesn’t want to go home, doesn’t want to talk and so Juan feeds him and takes him to his home where Juan lives with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). They give Chiron a safe place for the night before returning him to his mother. Ultimately, Chiron finds out the truth of his mother, that Juan is her drug dealer and the viewer is given a clear picture of the consequences of the drug culture on this little boy.
The next stage is Chiron as a youth (Ashton Anders). He continues to struggle, his mother more and more desperate for drugs, and reaching an age where he grapples with both his sexuality and how the culture around him feels about gay men. He must decide who he wishes to be, the gentle boy we’ve seen or become like those around him. And good or bad, his choices are interesting and dynamic, real choices that had the audience cheering for him. The final chapter deals with the choices he has made and him as an adult (Trevante Rhodes).
This film is deftly and subtly handled allowing his sexuality to be slowly revealed as he discovers it. At one point, as a small boy, he asks “Am I a faggot?” And Juan explains he doesn’t need to worry about that yet. I like the acceptance we see from Juan and Teresa to counterbalance his mother’s distaste and stereotyping of him. We are shown how the other young men treat him as well as the defenses they use to shield themselves from what they consider hateful and unwanted in themselves. And we see the effect all that has on Chiron. We also see how his friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) as a sixteen year old and (André Holland) as an adult deals with some of the same issues. And how their friendship both evolves and then fragments.
There are two aspects to the film, however, and Moonlight also delves into the drug culture of the area and how that also affects this young man. Chiron has a mother who uses drugs and he is involved with Juan who is a drug dealer. Drugs are all around him and there is a certain amount of inevitability to the choices that he does make. Did he have to make those choices? Possibly not but the filmmakers do an interesting job of showing more than one path to dealing with the environment Chiron grew up in and also giving you a portrayal of a young man who feels trapped by the life he has made.
I thought this movie was beautifully handled and the actors gave such dynamic performances with a quiet brilliance. Mahershala Ali was excellent as Juan and even though he was a drug dealer, you found yourself liking this man who shows compassion for a little boy. Janelle Monáe is funny and caring as Teresa. Naomie Harris gives a layered performance as his mother, Paula, both showing us an uncaring mother when Chiron is young and then as a repentant and loving mother when he is an adult. All of the actors who play Chiron handled the material well and were endearing.
There were some small elements that didn’t quite work. My husband felt the ending was abrupt. He was expecting more of a transition and he did feel the shaky camera effect in the beginning was hard on his eyes and while well done, could have ended sooner. The time frame, whether this was actually supposed to be the eighties or not, was difficult to tell. I felt like there were subtle clues, the cars, a class on white blood cells but I couldn’t quite pinpoint it for certain. And in the jump from child to youth, there is part of the story that was unclear to me and my husband. You do get a resolution but it takes too long for you to find out about one of the characters. But beyond those small points, the movie has a universal feel to it that will appeal to a broad number of viewers and the resolution, was to me, perfect as you see Chiron embrace his identity.
I feel that anyone who has struggled with their identity, their sexuality or even growing up in a harsh environment will empathize with the characters and enjoy this film. I found it a riveting exploration of a young man’s struggle to find himself, about deciding who you’ll be rather than allowing others to decide for you. It was a complex, powerful narrative that kept me immersed in Chiron’s life and it was in the quiet moments that I loved it best, for the writers allowing it to be exactly what it needed to be, a subtle exploration. It was compelling and while I may have missed some of the nuances, I enjoyed this film immensely and found the ending worked for me.
Rating: 4.5 stars
A young man deals with his dysfunctional home life and comes of age in Miami during the “War on Drugs” era. The story of his struggle to find himself is told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love while grappling with his own sexuality.
At once a vital portrait of contemporary African American life and an intensely personal and poetic meditation on identity, family, friendship, and love, MOONLIGHT is a groundbreaking piece of cinema that reverberates with deep compassion and universal truths. Anchored by extraordinary performances from a tremendous ensemble cast, Jenkins’s staggering, singular vision is profoundly moving in its portrayal of the moments that define us, the people who shape us most, and the ache of love that can last a lifetime.
Cast: Naomie Harris, André Holland, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Alex R. Hibbert, Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Jharrel Jerome
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Written by: Barry Jenkins
The film is an Official Selection at Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival.