Every now and then, the right movie comes along at the right time. With the Twitterverse bringing identity politics out of academia and into the mainstream, there has been a sudden demand for films that explore issues of racial and sexual identity with sensitivity, acceptance, and a challenge to conventional norms. Enter Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’, a beautifully crafted story of a gay African American man whose challenging social circumstances made it nearly impossible for him to ever truly find or be himself.
Ambitiously staged over three chapters to provide a ‘Boyhood’-like exploration of an entire life, Jenkins’ project feels like the exact movie that internet commentators have been demanding over the last year. Hopefully they’ll actually show up to the theaters to see it.
The narrative is a tryptic with its true message remaining unclear until the final third. We first meet our protagonist, Chiron, as a 9-year-old boy (Alex R. Hibbert) growing up in the impoverished and drug-ridden corners of Miami. His mother (Naomie Harris) is a junkie desperately trying to give her son a decent life while fighting her addictions/demons. The young boy is relentlessly bullied before being taken in by a local drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who acts as a mentor at sorts. At first it seems like the older man might be grooming the boy for work, but soon it’s clear that his goals are more compassionate. He hopes to give Chiron (played in heartbreaking near silence by Hibbert) the direction and support necessary to grow beyond the limited options of his community. Unfortunately, much like the boy’s mother, Juan’s reality makes his lofty goals nearly impossible.
Jenkins then jumps ahead to Chiron’s teenage years, where Ashton Sanders plays him with endearing awkwardness. The kid is more vocal now, but still bullied and struggling to come to terms with his sexuality in a binary community. He has a crush on his only friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who speaks so often about his conquests with the girls in school that their connection seems impossible. It’s a tough period for Chiron and doesn’t end well.
Finally, the story moves forward to Chiron as an adult, played by the muscular Trevante Rhodes as a drug dealer complete with bling and a grill. He’s a walking stereotype the likes of which has been seen on film many times before. However, now that we know Chiron’s past, it’s clearly an act and a mask adopted for survival, and is painful to see. Fortunately, this chapter is about reconnection, challenging preconceived notions, and finally finding a place of acceptance.
‘Moonlight’ is an ambitious coming-of-age story about the ways in which we never truly come of age, instead morphing and growing to suit our circumstances for survival. Jenkins and his co-writer Tarell McCraney explore the myths of black identity and the ways in which the circumstances that create that identity are often beyond our control. This is a political film, but never a preachy one. The message emerges from an achingly believable story told with sensitivity and honesty.
The performances are remarkable across the board. While characters may initially appear to be stereotypes, the script lets them all grow beyond appearances and the actors play them with a delicate sensitivity. Impressively, Jenkins also makes this very specific, small and human tale thrillingly cinematic. His camera glides through as an observer, bathing the characters is gorgeous light and heightening every moment for maximum emotional impact without ever showing off. The movie grabs you and then surprises you with a depth of feeling and wealth of ideas beyond what most will anticipate.
If there’s a problem with ‘Moonlight’, it could be one of genre. Though Jenkins admirably challenges the notion of the coming-of-age drama, he still abides by the rules. Despite all the directions that he explores and comments on, he has ultimately delivered a love story. Some might be disappointed by the simple place the story concludes after all the unexpected paths it takes to get there. However, there’s a beauty to the way the director crafts a story so grand in scope, yet ultimately small and human in impact.
‘Moonlight’ feels like a very special movie almost made for this specific social and political moment. Whether it can reach the viewers demanding this type of storytelling, or how large an audience will even care, are a reasonable questions. Time will tell. Regardless, it’s safe to say that ‘Moonlight’ will find itself on many of the “Best of” lists and awards nomination ballots that will spill out over the internet in a few months. That praise is earned. With luck, audiences will follow.