Starring Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, André Holland
What Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) has created in Moonlight is nothing short of exquisite. Sure, it’s getting high praise from critics, breaking limited release box office records, and likely by the time general audience see this little indie they will wonder what the fuss is all about. There are two types of films that gain awards attention, those that can make a universal audience feel good, and those that take you somewhere cinematically, you have never been before. Moonlight is the later, as it follows the life of a young boy living in Florida, from elementary to adulthood, and all the trying experiences that lead to his social isolation. There are striking images and scenarios that will affect viewers regardless of their creed, gender, sexuality, or race.
Nine-year-old Chiron (Hibbert) can’t understand why the boys at school pick on him, his mother (Harris) isn’t around much to question, even though she has the answer. He finds a father figure in Cuban immigrant Juan (Ali), teaching him how to swim, sharing stories, and offering parental nourishment he’s ever known. Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Monáe) makes sure 16-year-old Chiron (Sanders) know he is welcome at her house anytime. “Anytime” meaning when his mother is laid up on drugs. Things have only gotten worse for the quiet and withdrawn teen at school. Bullying is a part of everyday life. Childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is his only flicker of happiness, but that too only shines for a brief, beautiful moment. Adult Chiron (Rhodes) is still quiet, but a very different person on the outside, a reflection of that brief father figure, still looking for his place in the world.
It’s the many faces of Chiron that the audience will be unable to shake from their head, long after the film is over.
“At some point, you got to decide for yourself, who you are going to be.” It takes Chiron the whole movie to figure it out, then again maybe he never does, maybe no one truly does. That is what Jenkins explores here, and while Chiron grows up in poverty, surrounded by drugs, confused about his sexuality and dealing with both mental and physical abuse, this could relate to any number non-fictional coming of age stories. What makes this so different is the presentation; Articulately sectioned into three segments (Little/Chiron/Black). Stereotypical moments like birthdays, holidays, and graduation are completely avoided. Instead we are shown life’s unexpected character defining moments. The musical score, powerful and moving when present, but it’s often the absence of music that helps the viewer understand the severity of particular situations.
The three actors bringing Chiron to life in various stages are individually momentous. Harris (Spectre) and Ali (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) will be the one’s singled out come nomination time. Yet it’s the many faces of Chiron that the audience will be unable to shake from their head, long after the film is over. It’s the season’s first real must see film. In Boyhood we saw a young boy grow constantly surrounded by other people and typical experiences. Moonlight follows the growth of a child mostly in solitude. It’s not Brokeback Mountain or Carol either, although both of those films explore relational curiosity as a focus, Chiron’s lack of experiences in all aspects of growing up is the true heartbreak here. This isn’t a gay movie, it’s more of an exploration into what makes someone “a loner”, a term thrown around often. It’s not a tragedy either, in fact quite the opposite, one of hope and understanding.
A beautifully executed film, a quiet masterpiece that touches nerves and pushes buttons.