The coming-of-age story told through three sections named for monikers Chiron goes by at various stages in his life, is about this one boy’s upbringing in a poor neighbourhood; how he deals with his single mother’s crack addiction, who he goes to for parental support, the onslaught of bullying he faces for both being introverted and gay in an environment where neither is accepted, and just the generally miserable circumstances of his situation. Yet despite all this, he’s constantly growing as a person and discovering who he is.
There seems to be little point to the story or even direction, something that with the time-lapse nature of the narrative makes this film feel similar to Richard Linklater’s masterpiece Boyhood. And though it’s not as utterly unique or evocative as that film it’s still tremendously effective. This is Jenkins’ first film in eight years and as such you can tell he put a lot into it. He’s also influenced it seems, by some of the great auteurs in his directing. There’s something very vivid and lifelike to the cinematography, the stylized way he composes certain shots, the sound design, as well as the divided acts that attests to this. He also includes things like baptismal and rebirth symbolism. What makes this work much better than Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, is that here its’ actually conducive to the plot and adds to the impact of the film. There’s also the interesting fact that Jenkins is dubious to let us know exactly where and when this takes place. The three time periods aren’t much distinguished in their environment; you can presume they’re set in the 90’s, 2000s, and present respectively, but there are few indicators of this. And though it’s clearly set in Florida, they never identify a specific community, something which works to make the story more identifiable.
The performances in this movie are just as great. Particularly I love how the three actors playing Chiron: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes though clearly not the same person and differentiating their performances around their age, all convey the same few subtle traits; like the way he carries himself physically, his body language when shy or nervous, etc. Rhodes of course is the best of the three, playing the most confidant and interestingly weariest stage of the Chiron’s life. But Sanders deserves some credit too for perfectly portraying the turning points in Chiron’s teenage-hood that more than anything else make him the man he becomes. Naomie Harris is incredible as Chiron’s mother who simultaneously wants to raise him right but is too entrenched in her addiction to do so. She has a few intense scenes, most notably one where she forces her son to give her money for crack. Hidden Figures stars Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae appear as surrogate parent figures to Chiron. Monae is good but Ali is terrific. His character Juan like Harris’, is trying to be two figures, in this case a guiding role model to Chiron while also a low-level drug dealer. You feel like he sees a redemption of sorts in helping out this kid. Andre Holland also does a really good job as Chiron’s close friend Kevin as an adult. The whole cast is pretty exemplary, all of whom are African-American.
Throughout all this I was impressed by how good the writing was. Compared to the likes of Fences, a somewhat similar movie, the dialogue is a lot more natural making for stronger character interactions. The teenagers like in The Edge of Seventeen, talk like teenagers. This is significant because for as much of a loner as Chiron often seems, a lot of his development and self-discovery comes out of his relationships to others, most notably his mother and Kevin, the only characters apart from himself to appear in all three time periods. Overall, the films’ themes emphasize the importance of environment and relationships influencing our development, and the believable context through which this is depicted renders its message strikingly honest and insightful. And it actually ends up being a much more meditative and deeper film than it started out as. You may think you know what’s going to happen, but it throws you for a few loops.
Moonlight really is one of the best films of 2016 (as it happens, seen by most its audience in 2017). A really intelligent, thought-provoking coming-of-age story that touches on some harsh truths and even subject matter I can’t really disclose without spoiling, but done very well. Barry Jenkins made a film that feels very personal even if not necessarily based on semi-autobiographical experiences. And he did so in a skilful, exceptional way that it deserves to be seen by everyone who gets the chance.