Writer/Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, André Holland
In the 2014 film Boyhood, we watched a young boy grow up over a twelve year period. You can say that Moonlight shares a similar trajectory as we watch a young black man grow up over three different periods of his life. The first section showcases Chiron (Hibbert) as a nine-year old kid who’s nicknamed “Little” based on his smaller, weaker stature compared to the other kids his age. He barely speaks a word and is mercilessly teased by his classmates. His home life isn’t any better as his mother, Paula (Harris), is a drug addict. The only good influence in his life is a man named Juan (Ali) who takes Chiron in one night after finding him hiding in an abandoned apartment. He and his wife, Teresa (Monáe), become the guardian angels he needs at this point. The second section of the film finds Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) in high school where we find it has only gotten worse for him. His mother is still having issues, and Chiron faces a barrage of bullying from his other classmates who believe he may be gay. The final act of the film finds Trevante Rhodes playing a twenty something Chiron now buff and chiseled on the outside but still fighting those inner demons of how he can be a better version of himself despite the horrible influences he has had over the years.
It was probably within the first few minutes of this film when I realized how impactful Moonlight was going to be. It’s also made very clear early on that it was not going to be an easy journey to sit through. The second scene of the film has Chiron/Little running away from his bullies. It’s there where director Barry Jenkins sets in place the harsh reality of this world. Jenkins also wrote the film’s screenplay basing it on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which was influenced by his childhood. Jenkins expanded on the characters and themes while weaving in his own experiences and memories growing up. While some of the dialogue and action deal in symbolic metaphors, the reality presented feels very grounded and personal for Jenkins and McCraney. The characters are by no means dramatic stereotypes but extremely flawed individuals whom Jenkins and McCraney grew up with whether it was their mothers, friends, or mentor figures.
Each one of the characters, whether it’s Juan, Teresa, Paula, or Chiron’s friend Kevin, play a different role in his upbringing and the shaping of who he becomes by the end of the movie. Jenkins has a phenomenal ensemble of actors who all bring such complexity to their characters. I primarily know Mahershala Ali from his work on House of Cards, but his portrayal of Juan is the kind of performance, which could be overlooked at first viewing. Despite being a dealer himself, he is the only strong figure in Chiron’s life. Ali carries so much weight in his silent, quieter moments as he comes to grips with the choices he has made in life and what that may mean for Chiron. I was honed in on watching every regret and battle that goes through his eyes. Another staggering performance comes from Naomie Harris who is the only actor to appear in all three acts. Don’t worry, that’s not really a spoiler about the other adult characters in Chiron’s life. She’s probably best known for playing the new Moneypenny in the last two James Bond films, Skyfall and Spectre. It’s more of an explosive role compared to Mahershala Ali’s, as she is high on crack and volatile toward Chiron at any given point. My heart just sank in their scenes together. The movie rests on the shoulders of the three actors playing Chiron: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. This is Hibbert’s first film, while Sanders and Rhodes have limited credits to their name. Chiron is not a vocal character and keeps everything guarded and internal. None of them met each other while filming or talked about their take on the character with each other. With the guidance of Barry Jenkins, they create a complete picture of who Chiron is as he struggles with every aspect of his life.
While it focuses on a side of African American culture and Chiron’s environment, there are universal themes that can be reflected upon even if don’t have a personal connection to the specific world presented in the film. Moonlight deals with the struggles that accompany self-acceptance, masculinity, sexuality, finding your place in this world, dealing with societal pressures, and growing up that anyone can relate to in some form. It’s very evident how real this story is as many people share these issues across the country. We know this as stories of bullying, homophobia, and race relations come across the news at an alarming rate.
Moonlight is the kind of movie that shines a light on our youth and the impact our environment has on our development, not just as kids but how we continue to learn and grow as adults. I would be very surprised if it doesn’t move you in some way. Barry Jenkins has crafted a story that hopefully prompts great discussion afterwards whether you fully understand it right away or not. You may not get it all right away and that’s okay. That’s where continual dialogue comes into play. I can see it being the perfect teaching tool for kids or adults who may be struggling, who may feel in isolation, who can’t find their way, and needs reassurance that life will get better.
Whether it’s the powerful actors, the cinematography, or the gripping music from Nicholas Britell, you find yourself fully immersed in the three act emotional life of this character. As you may have gathered, it’s not an easy movie to watch. The bullying of Chiron in high school can really hit you hard. Every beat and moment is directed with perfection to constantly keep you on your toes as to which direction it may go and what choice any given character is going to make. You can really feel the back and forth pull Chiron faces whether he gives into temptation or goes against his truth. There aren’t many movies in any given year that sit with me or shake me up in the days that followed. Moonlight did that very thing. I want to go back and take it in all over again.
Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? See it. Reflect on it. Talk about.
RATING: 5 out of 5 TICKET STUBS