Directed by Barry Jenkins.
Starring Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, and Mahershala Ali.
A timeless story of human connection and self-discovery, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.
At what age does our personality and sense of self become complete? As adults, are we destined to harbour the same characteristics we had when we were children? Do we ever truly become a whole person, or does the very essence of personality itself remain as transient and fluid as the glow of moonlight upon the sea?
These are the intriguing philosophical and emotional questions posed by writer/director Barry Jenkins’ outstanding drama Moonlight, one tracing three distinct stages in the life of a young black man against the backdrop of nineties Florida. Or perhaps those stages are less distinct than they appear, each moment in the central character’s life awash in a constant ebb of past, present and future where the very notion of identity is continually in flux.
Taking as its basis Tarell McCraney’s play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue‘, the drama picks up with persecuted and introverted young kid Chiron (Alex Hibbert) aka ‘Little’, whose same nickname makes up the title of the movie’s first chapter. Horrendously bullied at school and neglected by his drug addict mother Paula (a harrowing and superb Naomie Harris), Little finds an unexpected parental surrogate in the form of paternal drug pusher Juan (Mahershala Ali, also outstanding) and his partner Teresa (Janelle Monae, wonderfully warm).
Quite apart from his personal and domestic struggles, it’s Chiron’s naive, tentative grappling with his own sexuality that occupies his mind the most, his one friendship with Kevin (played at a young age by Jaden Pinder) promising to bloom into something much more significant years down the line. One genuinely humorous moment sees Chiron and a group of other kids examining their own equipment – but amusing as the situation is, it’s Little’s enigmatic, inscrutable expression that Jenkins draws our eye towards, a subtle and affecting display of latent emotional angst that the boy himself barely understands (one more explicit moment sees him question Juan on the meaning of the word ‘faggot’, a term he’s picked up from his raging mother).
When we later pick up with Chiron as a teenager (Ashton Sanders) his situation hasn’t much improved: Paula’s drug dependency has worsened and his meek nature has failed to alleviate the hideous bullying he suffers (something that will lead to a shocking and violent outcome that has a marked impact on the course of the film’s third act).
Even so amidst Jenkins’ tapestry of light and shade, both Chiron and the older Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) will make a life changing connection that ripples through to the movie’s final stage where the older incarnation of the character, in a startling about-face, has left his earlier innocence behind to become a gold tooth-fronted gang member (played by Trevante Rhodes). However Chiron’s personal demons are never too far from the surface, setting up an emotionally charged and fateful climax with Rhodes, Harris and, especially, Andre Holland as the adult Kevin resonating with full-blooded conviction.
What Jenkins has made is a movie about black America that also casts the net wider, its emotional themes encompassing people of all races and creeds (something also made clear by the universality implied in the film’s title). It’s far more discreet and measured than something from Spike Lee, driven less by anger than quietly profound questions about our existence in the world; in tone, it sometimes hearkens back to the wistful nature of Andrew Haigh’s terrific gay romantic drama Weekend.
However that’s not to say that the movie isn’t driven by the burning need to make powerful statements about the black American experience. Indeed once we’re faced with the older, drug-dealing Chiron in the later stages, Jenkins’ smart, understated inversion of racial perceptions becomes clear, exposing heart-wrenching vulnerabilities beneath a character that, in a lesser film, would threaten to be a glib stereotype. That is ultimately is where the power of this deeply empathetic, superbly acted movie resides: it has the universal touch of moonlight itself, a wise story of race, motherhood, fatherhood, sexuality and identity that has the ability to speak to everyone under the stars.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★