Moonlight starts off in a way that was painfully relatable for me; getting bullied as a little kid. I was viciously bullied in school for no reason in particular. It seemed to be different every week. It was like the kids united and their camaraderie only grew stronger with their sustained and severe disdain for yours truly. Do you know why? Because kids are the most evil human beings on this planet.
However, the way I could go home, play video games, and snack on Slim Jims to take the edge off, the boy in Moonlight had a starkly different reality.
Chiron (Alex Hibbert), or Little, as he’s called by all of the other kids for his slight stature and unassuming demeanor, is chased on his way home after school. Finding refuge in a dilapidated, abandoned housing unit, he waits for the bullies to clear out. Mercifully, a man shows up by the name of Juan (Mahershala Ali) and shoos them away, rescuing him. Chiron remains completely mum, and not knowing where to take him, Juan drives him to his house where his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), gets him to talk with a universal icebreaker: food.
Learning where Chiron lives, Juan takes him home the next day to his verbally/mentally abusive mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). Chiron has two things going for him: his friend Kevin (Jaden Piner) with whom he is quite close, and Juan. Juan takes Chiron under his wing teaching him how to swim and other, more profound life lessons. Unfortunately, good guy Juan is also a crack dealer. You can see how that might cause turbulence down the line.
Moonlight uses three wildly discernible acts. Little is Act I. Act II, Chiron (played by Ashton Sanders as a teenager). Still close with Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome as a teenager), he remains a bit scrawny and still tormented by classmates. He and Kevin have a falling out as a result. His mother is much worse for wear — addicted to crack and partaking in just about all of the unsavory activities one can. Having had it up to here, he attacks one of his aggressors Hulk Hogan style with a chair and is arrested.
Act III — and from the ashes of Hulk Hogan rises The Incredible Hulk, Black (played by Trevante Rhodes as an adult). A moniker given to him by Kevin on a night many years ago while they were exploring their relationship and what it truly was, Black is jacked now. I suppose that’s what a lifetime of bullying will do. After being contacted by both his mother and Kevin (played by Andre Holland as an adult), Black must now decide which, if either, of these relationships he wants to try to reconcile.
Moonlight is an ardent coming of age tale. A child, confused about who he is and what he wants with odds pretty well stacked against him. A child unsure of his own mother’s intentions. There are no right answers. There is no Occam’s Razor. You just do the best you can with the circumstances you were given, or you give up.
I’m always skeptical when anyone calls a movie a masterpiece. That’s a bold claim. That said, Moonlight is the very definition of a masterpiece. Writer/Director Barry Jenkins and Writer Tarrell Alvin McCraney have created something remarkable. We, the viewer, are invited to watch something private and we’re granted a better understanding of something so personal that many have actually lived themselves.
Not only is it visually stunning, it sticks the landing on cinematography seemingly effortlessly. Cinematographer James Laxton created one-of-a-kind shots that lend to the film’s authenticity and emotion.
To say that the casting was good would be a gross understatement. Two of the roles — Chiron and Kevin — were both played by three different actors. Each brought something pure and vulnerable to their respective characters. Chiron, the scared little kid, evolves into someone much stronger physically, all the while maintaining the part of him that is afraid. Kevin cares for Chiron from the very beginning, but it’s the level and depth of that affection that varies throughout.
Mahershala Ali plays a man who only wants the best for Chiron, but is enabling something potentially harmful in his life. He performs with palpable compassion, forming a rapport with the audience without ever speaking to us. Janelle Monae and Naomie Harris are powerful and striking, both shaping Chiron in their own ways. It’s a bit like an angel and a devil on his shoulder; two women who love him, with different capacities to give that love.
Maybe my favorite part of this experience was the score by Nicholas Britell. It’s a film/score pairing finer than cheese and wine. He captures the heavy sadness of it all while maintaining a whimsical cadence. Such a feat done so well that it overwhelms the audience and they don’t even know it until the moment’s passed.
Moonlight is outstanding. It’s an extraordinary film that will keep hold of you long after credits roll; the beauty lying in its honesty and willingness to stay true to itself. See it in the theaters if you can, but watch it whatever way you must.
“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”