Many films have a good premise and thought-provoking themes, but miss the mark completely in executing the story. “Moonlight,” right from its opening scene, is compelling and intoxicating. It’s refreshing to find a film focused on exploring a character’s sexuality and isn’t ashamed in doing so with respect and thoughtfulness. Having it take place in an African American community in Miami is even better because movies like this being told with minorities front and center is even rarer. With that said, “Moonlight” is one of the best and moving films of the year.
Told over the course of three distinct time periods in the life of Chiron (Ashton Sanders), “Moonlight” touches on the moment when he first questions his sexuality (young Chiron is played by Alex Hibbert) and is teased mercilessly by a group of bullies. The next stanza is Chiron’s time in high school, where he very briefly and fearfully explores it. The final act gives full grown Chiron (Trevante Rhodes). This man has seen struggle and the inside of prison walls. He’s a different person, and yet the little lost boy inside is still very much a part of him. When he gets a call from an old friend, he’s given a chance to rekindle something that never got the chance to play out.
Based on the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell McCraney, “Moonlight” is a beautiful and honest portrayal of growing up black and gay. Bullying, prison, and drug use also come into play, feeding into the film’s plot and character development. In contrast to the not-so-great things in Chiron’s life, he finds a positive father figure in Mahershala Ali, a good friend in Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), and Janelle Monáe provides a place he can call home when need be. All of these themes of hardship, and influence only add to the film’s many layers, but never once do they take over the plot. Director and writer Barry Jenkins ensures that Chiron remains front and center. The film’s premise is simple and enriched with vivid images and sounds. Images like that of Chiron’s hands in the sand and the sounds of the waves lapping in the ocean are prevalent and generate an atmosphere of soothing warmth amid some of the gathering drama.
What I appreciated most about Jenkins’ storytelling is the decision to capture all of the emotional turmoil, heartache, hope, and frustration in the actors’ facial expressions. The film is quiet, not in the fact that it doesn’t have dialogue, because it does, but in the sense that there are so many things being expressed through lingering eye contact and body language. The film’s final scenes in the diner with Chiron and Kevin (André Holland) is absolutely stunning in the way it’s pulled off. There are so many things left unsaid in between the natural pauses in conversation and the caution with which Chiron approaches the situation. The actors nail the emotion and the scene plays out organically, leaving you breathless in its wake.
“Moonlight” is never contrived and maintains an open honesty within its story. To describe the film as a young man coming of age story does a disservice to the film. In fact, one of the most wonderful things about the film is that it defies definition. It isn’t one that can be summarized in a sentence, but the journey to self-discovery must be watched as it’s filled with nuance raw emotion that one can’t quite capture in words. “Moonlight” is gorgeously shot and wonderfully acted. Jenkins sets a high standard for tackling a delicate situation and it stands out in this masterfully woven narrative. It leaves a lot of things open-ended, but it captures so many emotions and approaches sensitive topics with such vulnerability and openness. With all of these aspects combined, “Moonlight” is moving and truly one of the strongest films I’ve seen in a while.
"Moonlight" is gorgeously shot and wonderfully acted. Director and writer Barry Jenkins sets a high standard for tackling a delicate situation and it stands out in this masterfully woven narrative.