Few coming of age stories shine so brightly as Moonlight
Director: Barry Jenkins Starring: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Mahershali Ali, Janelle Monàe, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome Running Time: 111 minutes
On a beautiful Miami beach, a father figure speaks to the young boy he’s decided to take responsibilty for. It’s a safe, calm place away from the oppressive inner city. In the moonlight, Mahershala Ali’s paternal drug-peddler Juan says to the silent and sad young Little, black boys look blue. Which is to say, how they’re seen changes depending on the world around them, and isn’t necessarily reflective of the truth. These words and the way in which they’re spoken reveal much about Moonlight, a poetic film that explores many issues about identity both racial and sexual, but does so in a deeply intimate and personal way.
Moonlight shows how our environment causes uncertainty in our identity and beats it into various shapes from an early age. The same young black man is seen at three chapters and three identities at different stages of his life. ‘Little’, the boy of few words that finds an unlikely support structure in his mother’s dealer Juan and Juan’s partner Teresa (Janelle Monàe), a boy who wants to run and hide from his oppressers. Sullen Chiron, who like many teenagers lashes out and tries to keep people out, but only because at this point he’s so used to people kicking the doors in that he’s tried so hard to keep shut. And ‘Black’, the tough drug dealer with a wall of masculine posturing and gaudy accesseries built up as a defence. The performative masculinity that is so strongly pushed on young men is particularly harsh where Chiron grows up, the kind that might cause a young man to bury his homosexuality deep down. Looking at one character through such a wide span of his life from childhood through the teen years to early adulthood as Moonlight does is a potential pitfall for unfocused, labourous storytelling. Director Barry Jenkins though, who himself grew up in Miami and who is drawing from the Terrell Alvin McCraney play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, tells a story that feels real, lived in and resonant from start to finish via brilliantly confident filmmaking.
Though Chiron is understandably closed off throughout Moonlight, Jenkins and his team shoot in such a way as to leave viewers constantly wanting to get into his head or to see him express himself. Walking or running through the Miami streets (the poverty shown frankly but not sensationally), Chiron frequently has his back to the camera as it follows close behind him. Chiron’s eyes are almost always cast downward, the camera lingering uncomfortably as Juan and Teresa, occasionally his mother (Naomie Harris) or the affable Kevin, the only boy he seems able to connect with, try to speak to him. The silences hang in the air and it comes through again and again that Chiron says so little because he doesn’t even have the words to articulate what it is he wants to say. Toxic masculinity is suffocatingly omnipresent around Chiron, from the boys who chase and beat him to the drug addicted mother who screams a slur in his face as a child. Jenkins shows an incredible skill directing actors in getting three of different ages to carry the same weight from that environment across the three chapters of the film, the same internal hurt and confusion about sexual identity that comes out in different ways.
Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron as child, teen and man respectively, showing a remarkable continuity between their performances, each building on the last. Rhodes’s tough front as the adult, drug dealing Chiron and how easily it melts away and turns to shyness when he’s face to face again with Kevin (played as an adult by The Knick‘s André Holland) is a very subtle physical shift and all three Chiron’s successfully say much with their bodies when the character is so reluctant to speak with words.
With Chiron so taciturn, the supporting cast around him are called upon to keep things moving forward, but each is fascinating in their own right. Playing Chiron’s mother, Naomie Harris has to walk a fine-line to avoid tipping into the melodramatic as she screams at her son or scrambles desperately for drug money, but it’s an empathetic performance, aided by writing that allows her to be antogonistic without being an antagonist. She may be calling Chiron the ‘f word’ while Juan calls that “a word used to make gay people feel bad” when the boy heartbreakingly asks what it means, but Juan has his own culpability in the environment that’s crushing Chiron, and Mahershali Ali carries that guilt behind his performance even as he acts as a positive figure in young Chiron’s life. As in last year’s Luke Cage Netflix series, Ali has an incredibly magnetic and commanding presence and the audience feels the weight of his absence as strongly as Chiron does when he exits the film without warning. The same applies to Monàe, warm and impressively, as confident an actor as she is a musical performer in her first acting role (Monàe is also one of the leads in Hidden Figures, also out now). These are performances that leave viewers wanting more, but each new chapter brings more actors working exceptionally under Jenkins as the others leave.
Next to a film like Boyhood, to which Moonlight is very comparable, there’s a consistency to the work being put in here that allows the story itself to build and build. Each chapter builds patiently to one striking moment; a question from Little, a retaliation by Chiron, a confession by Black. The structure has such captivating qualities, the poetic style of the writing boosted by imagery that recurs like beats, Harris in the hallway, Chiron in the moonlight, all of which comes together to make a film that feels like no other. The music by Nicholas Britell too, adds weight to the images, a unique combination of orchestral and chopped and screwed that underlines the film’s significant moments. The first absolutely essential film released in Ireland in 2017, Moonlight is a coming of age story that stands out for the intimate honesty of its story and the style with which it’s told.(5 / 5)