Film is an important, vital art form. So often it is neglected as an educational medium, but a good film not only affects us on an emotional level, it can allow us to experience the lives and cultures of others removed from ourselves. Moonlight is a perfect example of this incredible, sympathetic power. A devastating triptych, it is a journey of self-discovery told over three acts in the life of Chiron, a gay black man.
The first follows Chiron as a child, navigating the difficulties of his home life with his drug-addict mother as well as his burgeoning friendship with a local drug dealer named Juan. Already cognizant of how he is different from the other boys he knows, the film deftly explores the loneliness of childhood and the cruelty of children.
The second act follows Chiron as a young man in high school, living in a world that’s all surface, filled with posturing and forced stoicism. His desire for friendship, for acceptance extends beyond his difficult days at school to his home life, where his mother’s drug addiction has wasted her into a needy husk of a woman. Despite his general isolation and confused feelings about being gay, another young man has taken an interest in him and the seeds of a potential friendship are sewn.
The third act finds Chiron as a man in his twenties, having become something and someone else, obscuring his true self to fit into a mold crafted by society. Here, after a surprising phone call, he struggles to reconcile his troubled past with the possibilities presented by the future. However, he must come to terms with who he truly is if there’s any hope for happiness.
Irony is a grand player in Moonlight and something that director Barry Jenkins’ (Medicine for Melancholy) conversational, yet deeply heartfelt script manages to capture in a realistic, yet compelling way. Irony is what makes Juan and Chiron’s relationship so tragic: the one man who cares for him is also a peddler of the very thing that is destroying his mother. Later, in Chiron’s attempt to escape his otherness, he becomes the stoic, posturing bully he hated in high school. These are not grand twists and there are no winks at the camera. These are life’s ironies, tragic and wholly believable in their rawness. They invigorate character relationships and create palpable emotional baggage that carries through the films three distinct acts.
The emotional isolation that is a constant in the story is called into focus by Jenkins’ distinct directorial choices and James Laxton’s breathtakingly intimate cinematography. Chiron’s life is one of removal, both physical and emotional. When Chiron is himself, the camera remains tight, floating close, giving the audience a taste of the suffocating nature of others’ judgment as well as Chiron’s fear of the world around him. Yet there is an intimacy to this closeness as well, captured in the moments where the camera drifts back just enough to allow another person into the frame. When Chiron is comfortable with others, there’s a calmness to the picture, which remains free-floating, but mostly still. This is in distinct contrast to the Chiron of the third act, who is filmed in wide shots as if he were a different person entirely. Though that description was a bit technical, the manner in which this film was shot speaks to the immense care and consideration put into its construction. Chiron’s personal journey through isolation and exclusion in search of self-discovery is invigorated by these creative choices and further enlivened by the distinct lighting, which casts the world in intense whites, soft golds, and varying shades of blue, red, and purple.
However, despite the stylistic successes of this film, it would mean little without a strong group of central performances. Fortunately, all three Chirons – Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes – are wonderful. Hibbert possesses a naturalism often absent in child actors. Sanders does a great job of navigating Chiron’s confusion and struggles as a teen. Rhodes, perhaps given the meatiest part, has the task of taking a character we’ve come to know over the course of the film, obscuring his true self, and then slowly peeling away at that false exterior one scene at a time; a difficult job for any actor, but Rhodes makes it look easy.
Though there are other supporting actors in the film, the two standouts are definitely Mahershala Ali as Juan and Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother, Paula. Though not in the film for long, Mahershala Ali makes the most of his time, playing Juan with a charm and charisma at odds with the darkness of his profession. A man of contradictions, Ali manages to capture Juan’s shame and disappointment with himself without being maudlin. His affection and paternal love for Chiron, likewise, is completely earnest and beautifully performed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ali got a Best Supporting Actor nomination, if only for his incredible monologue which is one of the best and most important scenes in the film. Along with his fine performance in Luke Cage, Ali is having a great year and I can’t wait to see more of him in the future, hopefully as a leading man.
Noamie Harris delivers a heartrending performance as Chiron’s mother, Paula. Harris, reliable in pretty much any role, avoids the potential one-note pitfall of portraying a drug addict, instead making Paula a tragic figure whose love for her son is hidden away and overpowered by her uncontrollable addiction. Over time she, like the adult Chiron, peels back the layers of herself, becoming three-dimensional through regret from her actions and a desire for connection, the same connection that Chiron yearned for and was denied in his youth. It’s a painful arc, but one that Harris plays to perfection.
All of this – the performances, the direction, the writing, the cinematography – add up to a beautiful, moving, and deeply personal film; one that shines a light on the seldom illuminated culture of gay black men in America. Chiron’s struggle with his otherness is heartbreaking, but his journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance is empowering, and ultimately, hopeful. And that is the beauty of the film. It offers a portal into the life of a marginalized person, showing the needless nature of that marginalization and the strength of that person to endure through adversity in an effort to become their truest self.
Overall, Moonlight is a beautiful, necessary story for today’s world and one that demands to be seen.