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Taking a journey of self-discovery may seem tiresome in describing a film, as the theme has long been a familiar one in cinema. Many though have been stories of great hope and inspiration, crafted by filmmakers who seek to give comfort to those watching that their own pilgrimage through life is unique but not alone. And still there are some that reach even higher, ones that elevate the art to aching levels of heartbreak and beauty. Moonlight is a work that transcends the genre, a film of such power and courage, it redraws lines on the map.
In a particularly rough neighborhood of Miami, we meet young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) running from a small gang of others his age. They chase him through back streets and run-down fences where he finally gets inside an abandoned apartment building and manages to lock the door. He hides in the shadows and we sense that this is not something new, that this is a pattern, and the boy knows only how to run.
He is rescued in a sense by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who runs the drug house where the boy is hiding, taking him home to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) where they decide to give the child a home after learning his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is a drug addict and unfit to care for him. That’s complicated by the fact that Juan is also her dealer. Chiron understands this, but there are other sharp corners in his life and like any of them, he must learn to adapt to survive.
Time shifts. As a teenager, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders), has grown to a lanky, introverted young man, severely bullied at school and confused about his sexuality and the enormous pressures all around him. He finds comfort in the company of Kevin, his friend from childhood (played as a teen by Jharrel Jerome), who bestows upon his some sense of identity, though there are enemies that come in the fierce light of day.
By the time he is a man, Chiron (now Trevante Rhodes), has collapsed into the ruins of an empty life, soiled by drug dealing, he struggles to be a less vulnerable man. Shaped by what came before him, he faces the most devastating challenges yet, as the child he once was remains reflected in the path he has taken as a man.
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is segmented into three acts, each a chapter in Chiron’s fragile development and reveal crucial moments that have great impact. Adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film is an exploration on a number of themes, and while the relationships Chiron have, both nurturing and troubling, are deeply affecting, it is Jenkins’ remarkable skills for story-telling that carry the most weight. He uses violence sporadically but effectively, yet it is only one of several important layers in the many conflicts the boy and the man endure, with some things far more hurtful than hands to flesh.
Chiron is an easy target, with his thin skin and sinewy frame, and as such, is worn down easily by the bullies in his schools but perhaps more so by the neglect and fury in his mother. In a recurring image, she stands at center frame admonishing her boy with seething rage, but Jenkins mutes her voice and slows her movements so as to allow the frightening image to seep with greater strength. When it cuts back to Chiron, it works doubly-so.
But there there are moments that offer Chiron limited expressions of joy as well, once on the water as Juan teaches him not only to swim but to trust, and again with Kevin, who grants Chiron a warmth that resonates for a decade to come. Chiron is a malleable young man who hardens in adulthood, scarred by the hatred flung upon him but more so, weakened by the love that was too fleeting.
All the actors who portray Chiron give the character great sincerity, and it’s remarkable how seamless the transitions are from one to the other, despite the gaps of years between them. Our early investment of him is due to Hibbert’s deeply personal performance, which act as the foundation for when Sanders and Rhodes each take their turn, and each are echoes of the other. The supporting cast is also outstanding, with Ali and Harris both truly compelling.
Moonlight is a powerfully honest film that is never manipulative, despite themes that often tend to boil down to tropes and emotional wrangling. This is a carefully constructed mosaic of a man that earns every drop of sentiment it takes from its audience, telling a tale of great awakening that is as honest as it is devastating.
Movie description: Moonlight is a 2016 drama about the struggles as a boy becomes a man, searching for his place in the world.
Director(s): Barry Jenkins
Actor(s): Alex Hibbert, Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes