Early on in Barry Jenkins’ poignant, intimate and introspective Moonlight, the line ‘At some point you have to decide who you want to be’ is dropped. Moonlight focuses on what happens when society doesn’t allow you to do that and the internal dilemma and struggles which follow. Chiron, a young 1980s Miami school boy, is riddled with confusion, self-doubt and crying out for guidance and support, all of which are sadly lacking from his crack-addict mother (a transformative Naomie Harris). After school, Chiron is rescued from a bullying group of schoolboys, by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local conflicted drug dealer, who Chiron immediately latches onto like a lifeboat in the middle of a storm.
Juan, alongside his partner Teresa (Janelle Monae), provides safety and sanctuary for Chiron, who begins a difficult and at times dangerous journey of self-discovery and sexual awakening while attempting to find his place in society.
While Moonlight focuses on the struggle of gay masculinity in an oppressive world, at its heart, it is more a character study of masculinity and relationships with fathers, lovers, friends and mothers. This ambitious and powerful story covering roughly twenty formative years is told in three distinct and life defining chapters, with Chiron played by three different actors: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes.
It is not so much the physical resemblances that connect the three actors and the story, but more the small characteristics which they all embody. Chiron is stooped, withdrawn and seemingly unable or unwilling to lift his head to face the world which denies him. Each actor portrays Chiron’s internal struggle with a self-conscious dignity and almost desperate desperation. To get one performance of such depth out of an actor would be impressive, but to get three interlinked performances which still feel like one organic role, is simply genius. Throughout the film, there is no question that they are all Chiron.
Lines of dialogue, scripted in reality and designed to subvert, are delivered with aching truth and live long in the memory. However, it is the silences and stillness which speaks volumes. A flick of the eye when no one is looking makes clear the longing, frustration and painful exasperation contained behind them, and it is in these quiet moments where everything coalesces.
Director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins, launches us into Chiron’s world (he is in every scene) and refuses to let us look away. It’s almost as if he is calling us out with a visual ‘well, what would you do?’. With circular, almost predatory like camera sweeps and aggressive camera angles, we are drawn into the fear, self-denial and repression which haunt Chiron to his core.
This is both confronting and heartbreaking and enhanced by the subtle score of searing strings, mixed with forceful hip hop. Jenkins balances this harsh realism with occasional cathartic classical melodies and gentler moments of tenderness and calm where, for fleeting periods, Chiron finds some peace.
While this may all sound heavy, it is not heavy-handed. It is an immersive and visceral exploration of one man’s struggle to find himself. Moonlight is an important and at times challenging film, but there is grace, hope and honour in Chiron’s journey. The results of which will stay with you long after the credits roll.