A gruesomely intense film about a man who belongs to two minorities, with a moving depiction of a life of a shy boy coming from a disadvantaged background that transforms into a tough man to cut on suffering, Barry Jenkins’s film is a delight in terms of cinematic realisation, character growth and storytelling. Read our Moonlight review below.
Chiron is a sensitive boy who has a little too much on his plate. We meet him when he’s on the run from his bullies – he hides away only to be found by Juan, a local drug dealer. He and his girlfriend Theresa try to break the ice with the boy. However, Paula, who raises the boy by herself, as a drug addict, doesn’t like the fact that her son hangs out with someone who provides her daily dose. Soon, the action speeds up – and we meet Chiron in his teenage years, struggling with his sexuality and his environment’s unacceptance. We witness the powerful finale in the last chapter of his life, when he grows up and moves to a different place – only to redefine his relationships one more time.
Barry Jenkins takes up a story of an outsider who doesn’t quite have his typical happy ending. In the cinematic world where the justice is, for most of the time, granted to those who longed for it for so long, it’s a refreshing take. And that’s perhaps why is it so real: it touches upon a story so ordinary that it makes us think of our neighbourhoods, and all the times when disadvantaged kids didn’t get the support they needed for the ultimate triumph. Like Boyhood in its attempt to capture the coming-of-age years, despite three different actors playing the main characters, it succeeds at keeping the story’s continuity – thanks to both leading and supporting actors. And it also bears a wonderful resemblance of Girlhood – a French film that told us about the transformation of a girl, who got involved with a gang due to the lack of possibilities. But it adds to the mix with the analysis of the life of a black gay man, tackling it skilfully and sensitively.
The director succeeds at creating complex characters. It starts with Chiron, who develops toughness as a mask for his sensitivity – he can stand up for himself, but he can’t hide what made him. But a really remarkable one is Juan; although he’s somebody who isn’t exactly a role model in the eyes of the society, he turns out to be caring and delicate when he takes care of the boy. What’s in the script for him neglects all the stereotypes and meanders for a bit, showing the uniqueness of the story.
What largely allows this film’s key messages to be so reverberating is the cast. The actors playing Chiron at different stages of his life – Jharrel Jerome as Little, Ashton Sanders as Chiron, and Trevante Rhodes as Black – create an intertwined story, where no word or gesture feels out of place with Chiron that we got to know in the previous chapter. There’s also a chain of performances that, undoubtedly, also contribute to the storytelling charm. Naomie Harris fully utilises her potential as Paula, creating an astounding portrait of a woman grappling with addiction, in her best performance in a while. Mahershala Ali is another highlight who tackles a controversial, multifaceted character successfully – he plays a drug dealer, but he’s also a man who gets to explain the world to Chiron in absence of his father. And Janelle Monae proves herself as a fantastic dramatic actress across two chapters – with her striking softness and a bit of humour, she becomes the trustee of the main character.
Visually, the film really makes use of the character shots to show gestures and behaviours that speak louder than words sometimes. The scenes with Paula in slow-motion and the little clever compositions for depicting Chiron’s transformation are an absolute delight. There’s also something mind-altering about the soundtrack that only underlines the message and broadens our experience when we watch a boy change into a man.
Playing on the strengths that make this film so unique, Moonlight is an eye-opening film with a great story and top-class cinematography. Enrichened by the performances of so many skilled actors, and introducing fresh talent, it might be a film that’s a confident bet for the upcoming Oscars gala.
Moonlight opens in the UK on the 17th of February.