5 out of 5 stars.
“Moonlight” is one of those films that it’s hard to believe even exists– it tells a type of story with a type of character that hasn’t been done before, and does so in an exceedingly heartfelt and poetic way that earns it the title of one of the year’s best movies.
Directed by Barry Jenkins, the film is divided in three segments, each one chronicling the life of a young black man, Chiron, living in Miami as he grows from child to teenager to adult. Each segment is named after whatever Chiron is being called at that age, his name also reflecting his identity. The first chapter, called “Little,” introduces us to Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as a shy young boy, nicknamed “Little” because of his size. When bullies chase him into an abandoned hotel, he is found by a drug deal called Juan (Mahershala Ali), and gradually opens up to him and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). They provide a refuge for him from his abusive, drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris), while he also finds companionship in his best friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner). In chapter two, titled “Chiron,” we see teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) being frequently harassed by his peers, particularly a boy named Terrel (Patrick Decile). Meanwhile, his friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) evolves into something deeper. Chapter three is titled “Black,” after a nickname Kevin gave Chiron when they were teenagers. We see adult Chiron here (played by Trevante Rhodes), and he has toughened up to the point where he’s hardly recognizable; not only is he physically stronger, but he has risen in the ranks to be a successful drug dealer, like Juan was. On the surface, “Black” embodies the way most of society views young black man, but a reunion with Kevin (Andre Holland) reveals his lingering insecurities and proves that he still just wants to be loved.
In the beginning of the film, Juan tells Little that he has to find his own path in life, and that’s exactly what this film is, and more. Jenkins tells a deeply personal story here, one that is raw and compassionate. The film thrusts us into Chiron’s life, and the lives of those he’s close to, showing us stereotypes about black men, about homosexuality, about life in a poor neighborhood, and then proceeding to tear them down. From the start, Chiron knows that he’s different from his classmates; when he has the chance to embrace it, he is thrust aside, prompting him to try to make a change. The story of a young man finding his identity is nothing new, but Chiron’s story specifically and the way Jenkins’ tells it is. We never get all the details about every character and everything that has occurred in the years between each chapter; it may not be wholly satisfying to the viewer, but it makes the film feel more like realistic snapshots of segments of a person’s life as opposed to spoon-feeding us every little piece of information. The score and cinematography are gorgeous, with Jenkins often keeping the camera close up on the characters for the dialogue they’re speaking or the emotions written across their faces to fully hit home. The final chapter of the story is especially impressive and moving; it is mostly one long scene, one conversation, between Chiron and Kevin, but it builds remarkable tension as long-suppressed feelings slowly bubble to the surface.
The cast is outstanding, including all three actors playing Chiron and Kevin over the years. But Ali, who has possibly the most crucial role in the film, is a marvel, and his scene at the end of chapter one is not only heart-breaking, but is also the moment where it really hits home that these characters are more than what they appear to be. Harris is also phenomenal as Chiron’s crack-addicted mother, whose behavior and verbal abuse toward him worsen throughout the film, but who also leans on him as much as she can.
Hollywood may still have a long way to go in terms of diversifying its films, but “Moonlight” is the initial step in the right direction. The film accomplishes more things than I can name. It initiates a conversation about race and homosexuality, and society’s perceptions of both. It paints a vivid picture of reality, of the diverse America that we know exists but that not everyone wants us to see. But most importantly, it spreads a message of hope and love and understanding. Everyone who watches this film will take away something slightly different based on their personal experiences. When I watched “Moonlight,” as the final shot faded away and the credits rolled, no one in the audience stood up to leave the theater. Everyone remained in their seat and immediately began talking about the film amongst themselves. And if that isn’t the best response to this movie, to start a dialogue about an issue, then I don’t know what is.
Runtime: 111 minutes. Rated PG-13.