Moonlight (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout
Running Time: 111 min.
Cast: Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Andre Holland, Jharelle Jerome, Jaden Piner, Patrick Decile
Director: Barry Jenkins
Screenplay: Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney
Review published November 19, 2016
Moonlight starts with a black Miami youth named Chiron, nicknamed "Little" (Hibbert, Rhodes, Sanders), living in poverty and suffering in school because he is the target of bullies every day. He gains an unlikely friend when a sympathetic drug dealer (Ali, Mockingjay Part 2) and his girlfriend (Monae, Rio) take Chiron in under their wing, as he finds the closest thing to a family since his largely absent crack-head mother (Harris, Spectre) and deadbeat father aren't around to raise him. The reserved Chiron isn't like the other kids, which persistently makes him a target, and when he becomes a teenager, he begins to realize that it may be because he is gay, with feelings stirred by one of his few friends in the world. Trouble sets in for Chiron, growing up confused and troubled, until a familiar face may help him put him in the right place.
Directed and co-written by Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), adapted by co-screenwriter Tarell McCraney from his play, "In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue", a triptych covering three sensitive and telling periods in the life of a young Black male. It doesn't entirely shake the feeling of the stage play, but the film is still a compelling portrait of a man who struggles to find identity and happiness in an environment that offers little sympathy or protection for outcast youths like Chiron.
Although it plays as a straightforward drama, there is some occasional symbolism that adds nuance to the characterizations. Chiron seems to be connected to water, showing him at the beach, in the bath, or just feeling like he will be so overwhelmed with tears that it may carry him away like a wave. Meanwhile, his peer that he seems to have a fondness for beyond friendship is associated with fire, whether it is in sparking up a 'blunt' to cooking up a meal. It also reveals their nature, as Chiron is cool and without form, while Kevin (Piner, Jerome, Holland) is much more animated and provides a spark in Chiron's like that has been all but missing since he was very young. Meanwhile, Chiron's name changes with each chapter in his life, going from the name imposed upon him in "Little", to his struggle to own his identity in Chiron, then trying to hide himself under the tough veneer of masculinity as "Black".
One of the more refreshing aspects of Moonlight is Jenkins' ability to explore his story in a quiet and contemplative fashion most of the time. The score by Nicholas Britell (The Big Short) is there, but it is absent more often than not, as we begin to find ourselves growing in synch with the solitude of Chiron's lonely life that, for much of it, feels devoid of answers as to why he seems unable to fit in with the rest of the kids at school. The intimacy is also bolstered through James Laxton's (Yoga Hosers) cinematography, which tends toward using handheld cameras, close-ups, and shots in which the main players look directly into the camera, connecting with our own eyes as if we are seeing the longing and pain on the part of those most affected.
Kudos also goes to the casting of the film, as Jenkins has to fill in the major roles with three different actors to play both Chiron and Kevin at various points in their lives. Though there are major jumps, it is a very seamless transition, never once questioning just who we are watching, and the actors even resemble one another in both appearance and personalities along the way. The younger actors are helped by especially good performances by the adult actors, with an especially strong turn by Mahershala Ali as the drug dealer with compassion for Chiron's plight, even if he ultimately has no easy answers in overcoming the lad's perpetual melancholy. It gives him a strong masculine role model, but also one that may not be a healthy one given his illegal line of work.
Viewers shouldn't expect Moonlight to contain knockout scenes or flashy roles, as the drama plays much more like a coming-of-age character study about how one man has traversed a difficult existence in order to try to find a path that feels natural for him, with many challenges to his own way of thinking along the way. Some of the story may seem familiar to other portrayals of the impoverished African-American experience on film, with the twist that most of those stories don't also portray the difficulty of being gay, whether closeted or open, in such a hard-knocks upbringing.
©2016 Vince Leo