Films of this type often fall into the trap of hitting you over the head with their story. Becoming your stereotypical Hallmark Movie of the Week film. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), is the polar opposite of this. Some might say that it is too light handed. I disagree. This is a film about self-discovery, making connections with others and finding your place in the world. Something we all go through. Though not in the same way. It happens and its steps are not announced by trumpets. It happens inch by inch. Slowly. Turns out quiet moments are the most powerful.
A poor, rough, black, and drug riddled area of Miami is where Moonlight takes place. We follow the life of one particular young boy growing up there with a single mother, through his teenage years in high school and then as a full grown man.
Chiron (Alex Hibbert – first film) as a child lives with his mom, who seems to work in a hospital, Paula (Noamie Harris – Skyfall, 28 Days Later). He seems to be left to his own devices a lot as Paula falls deeper and deeper into drug use. On top of that he is also bullied by his classmates probably due to his shy/quiet nature. The only kid he seems to have made a connection with is Kevin (Jaden Piner – first film)
Chiron spends a lot of time running from them and one day when doing just that by escaping into an abandoned apartment building he is found by Juan (Mahershala Ali – from television’s House of Cards). Juan, who is a drug dealer, brings the silent Chiron to his house where his wife/girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae – Hidden Figures, Rio 2) makes him something to eat. After spending the night sleeping at their apartment, Juan brings Chiron back to his mother’s.
As Chiron grows up Juan remains the man in his life and Teresa the mother his cannot be. He spends time with them off and on. His mother is not pleased with this, but more preoccupied with whatever man she has in her life and getting her crack. The irony is that she buys her drugs from one of Juan’s dealers.
We next check in with Chiron (Ashton Sanders – Straight Outta Compton) when he is in high school. The bullying continues and mostly in regards to his believed sexuality. His classmates all believe Chiron to be gay. Life is made tougher by the fact that his mother is a total crack addict and Juan has died. All Chiron has in life is Teresa and his behind the scenes friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome – first film).
After another attack by Terrel (Patrick Decile – first film) and others, Chiron goes to the beach. He is joined there by Kevin. The two smoke weed and talk. Talking leads to something else. Chiron believes his life is going to get better, but that happiness is shortlived as the next day in school, Kevin, spurred on by Terrel, physically attacks Chiron. Terrel finishes the job and the beating is brutal.
Next day at school, Chiron walks into class and straight over to Terrel. He hits him with a chair and is hauled off by the police.
We next catch up with Chiron (Trevante Rhodes – appeared in an episode of Westworld) roughly 10 years later. He is not the skinny teenager we last saw. He is now a muscular young man. And has pretty much morphed into Juan, dealing drugs. He now lives in Atlanta and has a relationship with his mother, who is in rehab. Out of the blue one day he gets a phone call from his old friend Kevin (Andre Holland – from television’s American Horror Story).
Falling in love is difficult enough for those who go down the traditional path. Imagine if yours is one that is still vilified in some parts. Struggling with finding love while unearthing your own sexuality is one tough fight to undertake for anyone. Mix in the lack of parenting and love of a parent felt by Chiron you can imagine the tough time he faces. Oh, and did I mention, that there is poverty and bullying going on?
It is heartbreaking to watch Chiron go through his struggles and lack of support. Unfairness. How within his culture his sexuality is vilified. It is so realistically depicted that you are totally drawn in. Despite the quietness and slow pace. Though Chiron’s sexuality is the vehicle in which his story is told it really is a more universal tale about the battles in life, how crippling poverty is and how mindless along with crushing intolerance is. What rescues it from being altogether too much is the first sign of hope that surfaces right at the end.
While the directing, script, music, and cinematography are all good what really elevates the film is the acting. The ensemble cast, whether experienced or newcomers, all breathe life and dimension into their nuanced characters.