“At some point, you got to decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
A few films impressed me this year, but so far none have moved me like Moonlight, screenwriter and director Barry Jenkins’s first project in eight years. Inspired by Tarell Alvin McCraney’s piece In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight peers into three brief but pivotal intervals in the life of Chiron, a poor black kid in a Miami hood, as he grows up, struggling to connect to the world and find his place in it. This doesn’t sound revolutionary—I could say the same thing to summarize a handful of other movies—but Moonlight is different; it’s not merely Boyz N the Hood or Precious with a gay protagonist. Executed beautifully and flawlessly in three “acts,” it covers a lot of ground—blackness for sure, but also family relationships, sexuality, masculinity, and identity. I relate to so much about it even though my world is nothing like the one it depicts. Jenkins hits something universal, and I can’t imagine many people walking away from this film not feeling it.
WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!
Act one: It’s clear from the outset that something is different about Chiron, who everyone calls “Little” (Alex Hibbert). He’s quiet and contemplative. A group of boys chases him into a dope hole, an abandoned apartment building or motel where junkies do drugs. Juan (Mahershala Ali), a dealer, finds him hiding out there. Chiron won’t talk even after Juan takes him to eat. He warms up a little when he meets Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), but he’s still guarded. Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris), who has a difficult relationship with her son, knows he’s not like other boys.
When Chiron is kicked off the field during a game of something—soccer or football, I don’t remember—a classmate, Kevin (Jaden Piner), runs after him. He tells Chiron he’s “funny” before he picks a fake fight with him to get Chiron to show the other boys that he’s not “soft.” Apparently, they don’t buy it: “What’s a faggot? Am I a faggot? How do I know?” are some of the questions Chiron peppers Juan with not long afterward.
Act two: Chiron (Ashton Sanders), trying to shed “Little,” is a scrawny teenager. He’s still dodging bullies, particularly Terrel (Patrick Decile). He’s also still friendly with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who brags about his sexual exploits and smokes a lot of pot. Chiron has a thing for him. They share a surprise moment on the beach one night—it’s deep for Chiron. Too bad things go violently sideways when they’re back at school the next day.
Act three: Chiron, now “Black” (Trevante Rhodes)—incidentally, the name Kevin gives him in high school—is his 20s and living in Atlanta. He emulates Juan, and not just by following in his footsteps selling drugs. Kevin (André Holland) calls out of the blue. He’s a cook in Miami. He says that a guy played a song on the jukebox where he works that reminded him of Chiron, and he offers to make him dinner sometime. It’s a weird call that gets to Chiron, who still carries a torch for Kevin.
After visiting his mother at a treatment center, he heads down to Miami and finds Kevin at the restaurant where he works. They skirt around a bit, and Kevin plays the song: “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis, a smooth ‘60s R&B track with lyrics like “I’m so glad you stopped by to say hello to me” and “If you’re not gonna stay please don’t treat me like you did before because I still love you so.” Kevin vaguely seems to come on to Chiron, who doesn’t understand why Kevin called him—though he seems glad he did.
The sum of Moonlight is greater than its parts, but its parts are still great. The plot is fluid, driven more by dialogue and little moments—like Juan teaching Chiron how to swim, Teresa making the bed for Chiron, and Kevin cooking him dinner—than building up to any single climax. Moonlight is voyeuristic, crammed with moments that are so personal it feels like we shouldn’t be watching. The third act is strange and even a bit slow, but it’s brilliant nonetheless. Chiron and Kevin’s meeting is suspenseful and confusing, percolating with an urgent and erotic undertone. Something about how they convey what they’re feeling with just their eyes makes you actually want to see them kiss. Kevin sums up what the film is all about in one question when he asks Chiron point blank, “Who is you?” The end is unresolved, but it’s perfect.
Moonlight is as close to poetry as a movie gets. James Laxton’s cinematography uses colors that are so lush that you can actually feel the humidity in the air. The night scenes, especially on the beach, are an odd mix of serene and ghostly.
Side note: Chiron’s mother is an interesting character. She seems overprotective at first, wearing scrubs and a name tag when we first see her rushing up to Chiron as Juan brings him home the next day. Upset with Chiron for not coming home, she revokes his TV privileges and tells him to find something to read. Sensible parenting, perhaps; but a lot here is not how it appears. It doesn’t take long to see that she’s a mess. Likewise, it doesn’t take long to see that Juan is not the thug he appears to be. Nothing about Moonlight is what its seems on the surface.
(AMC River East) A+