Directed by Barry Jenkins.
2016. Rated R, 111 minutes.
We hear Chiron (pronounced Shy-rone) before we actually meet him. When we do, he's holed himself up in an abandoned apartment to hide from the other neighborhood boys who were chasing him. From we can gather, they were going to beat him up because they suspect he's gay. Chiron is found by Juan (Ali) who takes a liking to the boy and befriends him. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Monae) become a surrogate family for Chiron. Their home provides him a safe haven. At his real home, Chiron has lots of issues with his mom. These are merely the early stages of what becomes a very difficult experience for our hero. We walk with him through three important chapters in his life.
In each chapter, Chiron is played by a different actor. This makes narrative sense because he is at a completely different stage of his life in each. The opening chapter, "Little," sees him as a prepubescent boy played by Alex Hibbert. Ashton Sanders takes over for the second chapter, "Chiron," which takes place while he is in high school. Finally, Trevante Rhodes mans the role of Chiron as an adult for the final chapter, "Black." And mans it, he does, in more ways than one because that's precisely what Moonlight needs him to do. It's a muscular performance in both physicality and mentality. At first, his appearance and demeanor are jarring because of all that came before, but once we learn what's really at play it all makes sense. His entire adult persona becomes a sad referendum on the world he's grown up in. Most remarkably, despite three different actors playing the part, it never feels that way. None of the young men tasked with the job seems out of place. Overshadowed by the fact they share a role and, more easily noticeable, the world going gaga over the performance of Mahershala Ali. There's certainly no shame in either of these things, particularly being less noticed than Ali. As Juan, Ali knocks it out the part. He takes a character primed to be a simple caricature and makes him fully human. This is a guy who doesn't always do right, but is most certainly trying to do right by Chiron.
The cast, as a whole, is simply fantastic. Naomie Harris gets the thankless job of playing Chiron's mentally abusive mother Paula. She rants, raves, huffs, and puffs her way to a well-deserved Oscar nomination of her own. Janelle Monae strikes the counterbalance as Teresa. She's the far more nurturing of the two. Following the opening chapter, it's her alone providing Chiron with something good in his life. Monae is excellent in the less flashy role. It's even less flashy than the role Monae herself played to wonderful effect in Hidden Figures. In a year's time, I've gone from only knowing her as a singer to respecting her as an actress with admirable range.
The last key role is that of Kevin. Like Chiron, he is played by three different actors: Jaden Piner as a child, Jharrel Jerome as a teen, and Andre Holland as an adult. Similarly to Chiron, Kevin feels like a role played by one person we watch growing up. Kevin also might be the most important character other than Chiron. I've heard it said that Juan's presence hangs over the entire film despite a limited amount of screen time. I disagree to a certain extent. I recognize how influential Juan is to Chiron, however much of what we see him do is in reaction to his interactions with Kevin. Later, the depth to which Kevin has affected him becomes clear. It also begs the question: is what we're watching a love story, or a tragedy? Could it be both? The purposely ambiguous ending offers possibilities, but no solid answers. It's also fitting because Chiron himself is searching for answers. When the film ends neither of us are sure he's found them. If you're looking for a tidy ending, this isn't the movie for you. If you're looking for a film that serves as the starting point for a fascinating conversation, you're in the right place.
Of course, that conversation would be incomplete without delving into the topic of Chiron's sexuality. As I mentioned, we immediately learn that others don't like him because he's gay. There is a hugely powerful scene in which the youngest version of Chiron seeks wisdom from Juan on the matter. Juan delivers, but this leads to a moment where Juan can only fail. Aside from the final seconds, this is the most powerful scene in the film. When Chiron becomes a teen, we see little has changed between he and the neighborhood boys. Later, we find out Chiron has taken steps to prevent the kind of treatment he was getting earlier in life. The struggle to come to terms with his sexuality overwhelmed very early on. He is a man who has been trying to define himself nearly every day of he's been alive. The problem is he always bases that definition on the opinions of others. This is where the universality of Moonlight lies. Whether gay or straight, most of us have, at one time or another, become a bit too concerned with what other people think of us and adjusted ourselves accordingly. This is the strand many viewers will be able to grasp first. Once they do, Chiron's humanity cannot be denied. Instantly recognizing he's short of them, we become advocates for him. We just want people to leave him alone so he can be happy. And we want it badly.
Director Barry Jenkins deserves a ton of credit for pulling this all together. First, he wrote the screenplay himself, adapting the play by Tarell Alvin McCraney called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. He does an outstanding job of it. From behind the camera, his storytelling is confident and paced perfectly. Jenkins is also at least as responsible as the actors playing Chiron and Kevin for the seamlessness of their performances. He puts both in positions where they will most affect each other, and us in the audience. It also helps that he gets superb work from the person pointing the camera he's sitting behind. James Laxton handles the cinematography and gives us a beautiful, if sad, world. He particularly excels in shooting the beach scenes, both during the day and at night. They are two entirely different scenes. He makes them look that way and induces the necessary feelings in the viewer. In the end, that's what it's all about: the feelings in the viewer. Jenkins and Laxton explore and manipulate them without ever feeling manipulative.