D: Barry Jenkins / 111m
Cast: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland, Patrick Decile
Chiron (Hibbert) is a young boy living in Miami who is being bullied at school. Avoiding another attempt by his classmates to harrass him, Chiron seeks refuge in an abandoned property. He’s discovered by local drug dealer, Juan (Ali), who takes him under his wing. With his girlfriend, Teresa (Monaé), Juan looks after Chiron overnight, and learns that his nickname is Little, because of his shy, withdrawn nature. The next day, Juan takes Chiron home to his mother, Paula (Harris). The only person he likes is his schoolmate Kevin (Piner), and they become firm friends. When Juan sees Paula with one of his customers, he berates her but she responds by criticising his supplying drugs to her. Chiron keeps going back to see Juan and Teresa, eventually revealing that he hates his mother.
At the age of sixteen, Chiron (Sanders) is still being bullied, now by a specific classmate, Terrel (Decile). His mother is now addicted to crack and prostitutes herself to support her habit. Chiron still visits Teresa, and his relationship with Kevin (Jerome) becomes more intimate following a party. But Terrel’s bullying takes a more sinister turn when he pressures Kevin into taking part in a hazing ritual that requires him to punch Chiron in the face. The ritual leads to Chiron taking out his anger and his frustration on Terrel in front of his classmates, and being arrested.
As an adult, Chiron (Rhodes), now known as Black, has moved to Atlanta and followed in Juan’s footsteps and become a drug dealer. He’s estranged from his mother, but she keeps asking him to visit her. One night, out of the blue, Chiron receives a call from Kevin, who is still living in Miami. Kevin apologises for his actions years before, and this in turn prompts Chiron to visit his mother at the drug treatment facility where she now lives. She too apologises for the way she treated Chiron when he was growing up. He then travels to Miami and meets up with Kevin who is working in a diner. And Chiron reveals a surprising truth to his old schoolfriend that allows for a reconciliation between them.
A surprise hit at several festivals in 2016, Moonlight is a heartfelt, emotionally charged drama that portrays the experiences of a young boy as he grows into a teenager and then a young man. Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, as well as both McCraney and director Jenkins’ experiences growing up with similar family backgrounds to that of Chiron, Moonlight is a superb example of low-budget, independent movie making that’s by turns intelligent, compelling, meaningful, vital, and above all, crafted with a tremendous amount of heart and soul.
In telling Chiron’s story across three different time periods, Jenkins is able to show the slow, inevitable loss of innocence that comes from living in an environment where life is held in poor regard, and regret is a squandered by-product of selfish need. Already having seen and heard far more of the adult world than is good for him, as well as facing the daily trial of being the target of bullies, it’s no wonder that Chiron is withdrawn and non-communicative. What voice does he have? Who will listen to him? The lack of a father in his life doesn’t help, making his relationship with Juan, however inappropriate, the nearest he has to having a male role model. With his mother worried more about satisfying her own needs, Chiron is adrift in life. Only his friendship with Kevin provides him with hope of something better; Juan and Teresa offer him support but on a limited basis, and when he learns that Juan has sold drugs to his mother, it’s another disappointment that reinforces his view that adults don’t care. In this, the movie’s first section, Jenkins displays a sureness of touch in detailing Chiron’s sense of alienation, a situation he has no control over. It’s heartbreaking to see this young boy, treated so unfairly, both directly and indirectly, and to know that whatever is in store for him in the future, it’s unlikely that his situation will improve.
And so it proves when we see Chiron as a teenager. Still the victim of bullying, still withdrawn and being emotionally neglected by his mother, the young boy sitting on a powder keg of ill-formed anger is now older, but still struggling to find a place for himself in the world, and trying to make sense of his burgeoning feelings toward Kevin. It’s this section that delves deeply into the pain and frustration that he feels more and more, and when he does connect with Kevin it’s a rare moment of joy in an otherwise unrewarding life. But Jenkins is ahead of his audience. Just as viewers might be thinking, “Well, this happiness can’t last”, he subjects Chiron to further pain and betrayal. This, Jenkins seems to be saying, is Chiron’s lot in life: for every good thing that happens to him, a reversal must come along to balance things out.
And in the final section, where we see Chiron as an adult, and it appears as though his future will be short-lived due to his being a drug dealer, the movie also makes it seem as if Chiron will remain adrift for the rest of his life. But Jenkins and McCraney have other plans for him, and by subtly shifting the focus from Chiron’s distrust of life and the pain it has caused him, the movie offers hope in the form of the one thing that ever brought him happiness: his sexuality. This allows the movie to end on a triumphal note that is both unexpected and incredibly moving, and though you might argue that Chiron’s life won’t change irrevocably, he does now have a chance at changing some things for the better.
Moonlight is an audacious movie that explores notions of identity and belonging with a great deal of conviction and confidence. Jenkins and McCraney have constructed a delicate, thought-provoking screenplay that offers no easy answers to the various predicaments Chiron experiences, and which does so out of a sense of fidelity to their own lives growing up. There are further themes around personal responsibility, parental neglect, peer pressure, and flexible morality, and Jenkins juggles all these elements with admirable ease, presenting Chiron’s world with a deceptively fluid directing style that’s enhanced by James Laxton’s often luminous cinematography, Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders’ intuitive, languorous editing, and a beautifully redolent score by Nicholas Britell. But it’s the performances that impress the most. As the three incarnations of Chiron, Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes are all equally impressive, while Ali underplays his role as Juan to such good effect that you really want him to break the stereotype and be the male role model Chiron needs. And for someone who didn’t initially want to play the role, Harris is magnificent as the mother whose love for her son is diminished by addiction but not abandoned entirely.
Rating: 9/10 – an immensely personal and rewarding movie that paints a vivid picture of a life recognised but rarely this effectively examined, Moonlight is unapologetic and touching at the same time; treating its characters with a compassion and a tenderness that belies the life that Chiron is a part of, the movie is a wonderfully realised testament to the idea that connections can be made in the most inauspicious of situations, and that love – really and truly – can make all the difference.