Moonlight is probably the most exquisite and understated lgbt coming of age story to hit our screens for years. Light on plot and even sparse on dialogue, it nevertheless packs a powerful punch showing the inner turmoil of an African/American youth coming to terms with his own sexuality as he grows up in one of the tougher aggressively machismo neighborhoods of Miami.
Chiron’s story is played out in three parts. The first is when he is a scrawny 10 year old who is nicknamed ‘Little’ (Alex R Hibbert) and is always being picked on by his classmates. one day to avoid yet another beating, he runs off and takes shelter in a boarded up drug cache. He is rescued from there by Juan (Mahershala Ali) a local drug baron with a big heart and a very kind-hearted girlfriend (Janelle Monáe). Juan becomes a surrogate parent for the father long gone and a mother (Naomie Harris) who it turns out is one of his regular customers although like most, she can ill afford it. When the rather morose and silent Chiron with his big soulful eyes does open up and asks Juan some desperate enquiring questions which give the first clue of his sexuality, he is met with very simple advice “At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be, You can’t let nobody make that decision for you”.
The second part of the story is when Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is now in High School and is still very troubled and extremely vulnerable. His bullying classmates have never relented from picking on him for being gay like that have done for years, before even Chiron ever considered that possibility about himself. He still has the same one good friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) who not only provides the sympathetic ear that Juan used to do, but he has even re-christened him with a new nickname of ‘Black’. It is Kevin who is the vehicle for Chiron to eventually test out his sexuality with a spontaneously tender and slightly awkward moment on the beach late one night. Kevin may be attracted to Chiron, but nevertheless when egged on by the class ringleader he allows himself to be taunted into publicly beating up Chiron just to save his own face amongst the other boys.
Chiron refuses to fight back but he never ever forgets the occasion and is determined that it will never happen again. So by the time we see him as a grown man (Trevante Rhodes) in the third part of the story, he has moulded himself up into being a powerful muscled thug. With his massive frame and his row of gold teeth he is almost unrecognizable, yet he still has the same soulful eyes that tell in one glance that even under this new ‘disguise’ and working as a tough drug dealer, he is still the same vulnerable unsure gay man.
His mother is now in rehab up in Georgia where they had moved too. She has shaken off her addiction which had so impacted Chiron’s youth, but even sober she is still not an easy person for him to deal with.
One day out of the blue after a decade silence, he receives a phone call from Kevin (André Holland) who is now working as a chef in a Miami diner, and this spurs him into spontaneous jumping in his car and paying a surprise visit to his old best friend. It is obvious that Chiron has some unspoken business regarding his feelings that he needs to resolve with Kevin, and in one of the most poignant scenes of this rather wonderful drama, he finally speaks up.
The full impact of watching Moonlight takes one by total surprise just as Telluride Film Festival recently discovered when they couldn’t organize enough additional screenings to meet the demands of the industry crowd responding to the phenomenal word-of-mouth raves that surrounded the movie. Even more remarkable is the fact that it is only the sophomore feature from young Miami filmmaker Barry Jenkins who has imposed such a confident and refreshingly different approach to his film, and all without resorting to any of the usual cliches. The story was adapted from the Tarell Alvin McCraney’s un-produced play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue“. Both McCraney and Jenkins grew up in Miami’s Liberty City where Moonlight was set, and Jenkins told Telluride audiences that the character of Chiron is actually based on a combination of their own separate real-life growing up stories which makes a great deal of sense when you appreciate the authenticity throughout the entire movie.
The casting is pitch perfect, particularly the three versions of Chiron who effortlessly blend into one, and so too with the different actors who portray Kevin as well. Jenkins coaxed sublimely subtle performances from all his leading men in their varying ages, as well as from singer Janelle Monáe making her acting debut and British actress Naomie Harris in a role that was a far cry from playing Moneypenny in the last two Bond movies.
Kudos to both the cinematographer James Laxton who beautifully filmed an expansive Miami landscape that many locals will fail to recognize, and also to Nicholas Britell for the extremely innovative soundtrack which mixed hip-hop with Aretha Franklin and Mozart.
Moonlight marks the arrival of new inspirational talent of a filmmaker who ensured that his beautiful portrait of a life marked by love, loss, and tragedy was devoid of the usual histrionics of most LGBT coming-of-age stories which will make this a must-see movie way beyond the gay community. He also avoided any temptation to include any preachy message of any kind, and let Chiron’s inner struggles speak for themselves.
The absolute joy of watching of this story unfold resounds with you days later not necessarily for the details of the plot, but simply for the sheer charismatic way it was told.