The quiet 2016 story of a young man’s journey of through life and that of self-discovery might just be the film of the year. Writer/director Barry Jenkins creates an atmosphere that is as colorful and unique as it is relatable to an audience anywhere in the world. Matched with wonderful cinematography, a needle drop soundtrack, and powerful cast of experienced and newcomers, Moonlight gives a new take on the story of coming out and growing up. A truly well rounded story of a full character that is tragically and beautifully presented.
The film is presented in three acts (Little, Chiron, and Black) which represent the names the main character was known as throughout his life. Chiron is a quiet and shy kid who is tormented by the other boys who chase him after school for reasons that become clear as time goes on. When Chiron (known as “Little” when he is a child who is played by Alex Hibbert) runs into an abandoned building, he is saved by a local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). A surprisingly nuanced and kind hearted man, Juan takes Little under his care until he can find out where the child lives, as Little refuses to speak. Juan let’s Little stay the night with him and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who the boy instantly takes a liking to. The two adults finally coax information out of Little, but not before making a lasting impression on the young introvert. So begins the true journey of this character, as we see him deal with his drug addicted and emotionally abusive mother Paula (Naomie Harris). The film works so well here as a by the numbers heart string tugger, but there is more and you should dig further as the viewing audience. Against this known surface narrative is a young man struggling not just with his sexuality, but more importantly how he fits into the world of masculinity. There are apathetic hyper-masculine characters and sympathetic nuanced ones. They push, pull, and shape Little with every interaction. Particular moments of male-bonding (having nothing to do with sexuality whatsoever) are moments that shine in the primary chapter. Finding where Little fits is his number one concern, and nothing works quite right.
The rest of the film focuses on the remaining and emotionally heaviest chapters of Chiron's story. The second act being his years in high school (now played by Ashton Sanders), where he must contend with his mother's addiction head on, and his first sexual experience, and the aspects of bullying. Peer pressure plays a large role here in not only defining Chiron but those around him as well. The daily torturous life that Chiron lives during the second chapter are the most cliché but are they are there because they are accurate. The film does a wonderful job of making Chiron's experiences as a gay man relatable no matter where you are on the sexuality spectrum. The awkwardness of self-discovery is universal and that is what makes the film transcend it just being a film about the LGBTQ community. It is representative of that community but it is so much more as well; a truly human story. The third act (this writer's personal favorite), takes a look at Chiron in his mid 20s (now played by Trevante Rhodes). An emotionally damaged young man who has been more influenced by his early childhood than we could have possibly expected. This chapter is quiet, striking, and romantic. Some of the best subtle acting and writing that I've seen in some time.
In the end, the film is simply a stellar example of what happens when a writer/director is allowed to pursue his or her true visionary passion. Barry Jenkins first film, Medicine for Melancholy, was received with mixed reviews, but Moonlight is no middling follow up. Powerful in its message, tremendous in its casting and acting, and shot incredibly well. There is something for everyone here, whether or not you are a part of the LGBTQ community this film speaks to the trials and tribulations of just growing up. A truly impressive work of art.
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