Quiet, contemplative, and tackling a sensitive subject matter with profound earnestness, Moonlight is an engrossing character study and one of the year’s best films.
It isn’t every day that a fictional character gets to lay claim to a piece of your soul. We see lots of great films and are told countless imaginative stories, but a singular character who feels as real as anyone you’ve ever known is tough to come by. The new film Moonlight features an indelible protagonist that will live on in your mind perhaps longer than any other aspect of the film, exemplary as they may be. Once you meet Chiron you won’t want to let him go.
Chronicling some of the most important formative periods of Chiron’s life, Moonlight is split into three sections. Each is presented with a title card signifying who Chiron “identifies” as during these different points in time: Little, Chiron, and Black. All three combine to make our protagonist a relatable single entity. He is at once all of those people and none of them. He transcends each name given to him and forms his individuality through his gentle nature and not as a result of the mud slung his way.
Chiron’s journey is at times devastating and at other times filled with hope and possibility. From a very early age Chiron diverts what his society would deem as “masculinity.” It’s suggested early on that the boy is gay, even as he is unable to understand what that means and why his peers react to it the way they do. Lacking a supportive family – his mother (Naomie Harris) is an emotionally abusive crack addict – Chiron is often left helpless, alone, and confused.
In the “Little” first segment of the film, young Chiron is befriended by a man who arguably becomes the absolute most influential figure in his life, Juan (Mahershala Ali, best known as Remy on House of Cards). Juan rides a wave of duality as a drug dealer with a soft heart. As Little grows to become the man known as Black, the life of Juan becomes sort of a parallel to Chiron’s own, and the character finds both the light and darkness in this often-tormented existence. Heartwarming and heartbreaking, Ali is phenomenal in the role.
Chiron also finds love and support throughout the years from Juan’s wife, Teresa (singer Janelle Monáe in a strong cinematic debut). Another figure following him throughout these three periods of his life is Kevin (played as an adult by Andre Holland from American Horror Story: Roanoke). It’s in Kevin that Chiron discovers an untapped portion of his soul, and the eventual destination of their relationship might leave you in tears.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins eschews the more explosive events that could happen to this character in favour of quieter scenes that carry even more truth in their silences. Moonlight is not a film with “big” moments. As Chiron stays nearly mute for most of the time, there’s also little in the way of dialogue to help us connect with this character. But the empty spaces between sentences and the stolen glances say more than any amount of words could convey. That the audience cares so strongly for Chiron is a testament to Jenkins’ direction and the connective tissue that spans the three actors portraying the character. From a boy to an adult, Chiron’s eyes maintain the same light. It’s a wondrous feat of casting.
The camera observes Chiron with unblinking patience and empathy. We’re by his side as he navigates a broken home, schoolyard bullies, falling in love, and landing in serious trouble. Though his situation is very specific, it’s also universal. Gay or not, African American or not, rich or poor – Chiron’s journey of discovery is one anyone could have taken. What separates us from him is incidental and circumstantial. The film is cavernous in its thematic depth.
Moonlight features more than a couple scenes that are complete stunners. Little learning to swim, Chiron having his first kiss, and Black reuniting with a loved one all may not be the hooks of a more bombastic film, but Moonlight is a lot like Chiron himself – quiet, calm, and reveals its true nature over time. Traditional exposition between the three different acts is non-existent: we have to catch up on our own to trace the events of the gaps left unseen, which is sometimes a bit frustrating. But as the picture of Chiron’s life becomes more and more clear so does our intrinsic understanding of his formation.
The film has a lot on its mind about socioeconomic politics and the conceivable death sentence many impoverished young black men are born into. These characters all share a similar background and all face more or less the same challenges. The movie very clearly lays out how the deck is stacked against them, and our young protagonist is given an extra obstacle to pass: he’s gay, in a community that doesn’t readily accept that, and he doesn’t understand it himself either.
Moonlight is a quiet film that paints a picture of a life lived through a lens we perhaps can’t fully relate to at the beginning – at least, not on the surface. Thanks to the absolutely masterful direction of Barry Jenkins we leave feeling as connected to Chiron as any fictional character in recent memory. Chiron will soon become a name you will not forget, and his story is one that will break your heart while instilling your spirit with hope. We are all on the same path of discovering our truest selves, and Moonlight is a masterpiece of that aspect of the human condition.
Comparisons to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood might be drawn; though the two films are vastly different in their storytelling (and means of production) they both are microscopic examinations of how everyday experiences can have rippling effects that last a lifetime. We see more of a well-rounded development of personality in Chiron than we do with Boyhood‘s Mason, though, mainly as a result of Moonlight‘s structure allowing for more vast dramatic leaps. The film also evokes David Gordon Green’s masterpiece George Washington at times in its imagery and tone. But Moonlight will stand on its own as a singular expression of one person’s search for an identity he can embrace as fully, completely, him. It is one of the year’s very best films.
Five out of five!
Moonlight is rated R and now playing at select cinemas near you.