I’ll start by admitting that my viewing was long overdue. A confluence of factors contributed to this (not the least of them being that my roommates saw it without me and we’ve seen something else whenever we’ve gone to the theaters since), but that’s no excuse for someone who claims to be a cinephile.
So, Moonlight. Where to start. At the most superficial level, someone might describe it to you as the journey of a young black man growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood, all the while struggling with his sexuality. But this film is so much more than the buzzwords that pepper the previous line. It’s a story of self-discovery. A story of human connection. And a story of otherness.
Broken into three parts, Moonlight chronicles Chiron at different stages in his identity. When we start out in adolescence, he’s known as “Little” (Alex Hibbert). He’s withdrawn, quiet, and, as his nickname suggests, small for his age. He’s just beginning to sense his otherness and feel the hurtful sting from his peers, but he’s essentially on his own to figure it out. His mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is of little help, as she has struggles of her own to contend with.
But, we get the sense that the story might turn when Little meets Juan (Mahershala Ali). While not the prototypical role model/guardian, Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) take it upon themselves to try providing care and support.
As Chiron (Ashton Sanders) moves into his mid-teens, his challenges continue. He’s still quiet and shy, but he’s forced to deal with his sexuality and mother’s problems more directly, eventually making a choice that shapes his early adulthood. When we catch up with him in part three, he’s going by “Black” (Trevante Rhodes) – another nickname he was given as a teen. His transformation from Chiron to Black is a clear and harsh reaction to the pains he faced growing up, displaying his attempts to gain control of his identity.
While all of the performances are fantastic, Ali and Sanders really stood out in my mind. At this point, Ali’s career successes lend gravitas to each new role he takes, but it’s unquestionably bolstered by his nuanced and measured delivery. Sanders offers a breakout performance in his formative teen portrayal of Chiron, both subtle and emotionally wrought.
Director Barry Jenkins artfully plays with rich color and lighting throughout, as you may have suspected from the title, but one of his most interesting — and likely impactful — decisions was his direction of the actors playing Chiron. According to an interview with Jenkins, he never had the three actors who play Chiron meet during production. He “wanted each of them to build their own persona of Chiron during their respective segments, with no influence from the other portrayals,” according to IMDb. It definitely makes for a truly unique character evolution.
Was Moonlight my ‘favorite’ film of the year? Probably not, but for the same reasons I don’t think I would ultimately identify a film like Room or Spotlight or even Manchester by the Sea as my ‘favorite’ – namely that the entertainment factor takes a backseat to everything else the film’s trying to achieve. Which certainly isn’t meant to be a knock. It’s among the three or four best films of the year, and it weighs on you long after you’ve left the theater. Hell, I saw it a few days ago and I’m still not sure I’ve unpacked it all in my mind.
Give it a watch, and prepare to have your comfort zone expanded.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders
US Release: November 18, 2016, A24, Plan B Entertainment