★★★★ / ★★★★
Screenwriter-director Barry Jenkins crafted a picture without compromise and what results is an experience in which it is near impossible for one to walk away from without some sort of a lasting impression. If film is indeed a tool that can be utilized to put one person in another’s shoes, then “Moonlight” is a great accomplishment from top to bottom. With a running time of just under two hours, every scene and every moment is executed in an intelligent, heartfelt, and insightful way. Although some may be quick to reduce it to an LGBTQ film—after all, it tells the story of a poor, African-American boy who grows up to be gay—its core is how one’s environment contributes—quite considerably—to shaping one’s identity. It is a universal story.
Most impressive is that the three chapters which make up the film stand strong on their own—each twenty-five to forty-minute segment more than worthy of a full-length movie. Our protagonist is named Chiron and in every chapter he goes by a different name which is directly tied to his identity at that particular age. And despite the fact that Chiron is portrayed by three performers (Alex R. Hibbert as the child, Ashton Sanders as the teen, and Trevante Rhodes as the adult), who share little to no resemblance, the more we spend time with them and look them in the eyes, we become all the more convinced that they are playing the same person.
Each segment has a specific perspective and feeling. For example, in “Little,” scenes are almost dream-like in its approach. There is a lot of extended attention on children playing, the sky, the grass, how boys relate to one another. There are plenty of background noises—the kind of sounds one remembers when one looks back at one’s childhood. In “Chiron,” sequences are executed with more energy. Tension escalates to a boil and we anticipate an explosion. Sudden cuts are employed to further suspend the viewer in anticipation. Notice, too, that the kind of noises we hear are different. More time is spent at school. It pays careful attention in showing the cruelty of one’s peers.
In “Black,” such a stark contrast, there is almost an eerie calm. The noises are gone. Characters tend to speak more with their eyes than they do with words or actions. There is a maturity about it, a tiredness about it. The events take place at night, indoors. Important people in Chiron’s life have grown or learned, or both, have broken free of the shackles that chained them to the past. But not Chiron. And at this moment we realize why his particular story is worth telling.
Lastly, I appreciated its portrayal of a drug-addicted mother played by Naomie Harris. She plays the character without vanity, without glamour, just a person one can find in the streets, in a liquor store, at a gas station, looking, craving for her next fix. An easier route would have been to show merely a monster of a mother, Paula who fails to show love to her son when he needs it most. And while she is that kind of mother, the writer-director gives more layers to Paula by introducing moments of lucidity. It is then up to the audience to untangle which interactions between mother and son show true affection and which are drug-fueled possessions that just so happen to appear genuine when, in reality, it is the drugs in control.
Harris’ performance touched me, perhaps the most, because I believe we live in a society in which drug addicts are treated like they are worse than animals. I appreciated that this film is sympathetic without diluting what drug addiction is. The interaction between mother and son in the “Black” chapter is near perfect in writing and execution. The emotions are earned.
Based on the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin, Jenkins has created a modern masterpiece that is filled to the brim with respect and humanity. This is the kind of work that will be remembered—and should be remembered—many decades from now. It made me feel grateful for the love my parents have given me while growing up—and giving still—so that I would not turn out to be another Chiron.