A young’s man struggle to discover his sexual identity is painfully documented over the course of several tumultuous periods of his life in writer/director Barry Jenkins’ powerful and tender coming-of-age tale, Moonlight.
Set in Miami, Jenkins’ intimate drama unspools like a three-act play, with each foreshadowing a different period in the life of young troubled youth, Chiron. He doesn’t fit in with his peers, who consider him soft, and is misunderstood and neglected at home by his drug-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), Chiron, or “Little” (Albert Hibbert) as he is unaffectionately known, is a shy, detached loner. Despite being a child of a few words, he eventually opens up to his only childhood friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner), who challenges him to stand up for himself.
He also finds an unlikely ally in the form of the neighborhood drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who looks upon Little like his son. Whether dispensing life lessons, teaching him to swim or just making himself present, Juan is the father figure that Little has been sorely missing. It also gives the hardened hustler a chance to guide a young boy that reminds him so much of himself.
Jenkins’ screenplay, which is based on the Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, features plenty of poignant moments none more effective than a tremendously emotional scene between Juan and his lady, Teresa (Janelle Monae) and Little. Inquisitive about his condition, Little asks Juan several hard-hitting questions, each more painful than the other for Juan. The realization of the loss of the child’s innocence, as well as him being forced to examine his own role in Little’s life, cuts like a knife to Juan’s soul and is brilliantly acted out by Ali.
Now in his teens, Chiron’s (Ashton Sanders) situation remains muddled. Ostracized by his classmates and his mother, who has dropped deeper into her addiction, Chiron is living almost homeless finding shelter wherever he can lay his head. Already experiencing life as a living hell, it seems that he would continue to dwell in darkness, non-stop, until he finds a brief ray of light from his childhood friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) – an experience that would give him his freedom and change his life.
His first film since the critically-acclaimed 2008 indie drama, Medicine for Melancholy, Jenkins has always excelled in displaying small, intimate moments. There are so many scenes that feel not like we’re observing Chiron but are engulfed in his story from his point-of-view, feeling his pain, his isolation, his utter despair with the truth of his identity that he must bury deep to be accepted.
Moonlight is the rare cinematic depiction of what it truly feels like to be Black and Gay in America; a story which is holistically romantic and tender as opposed to the raw sexual energy so prevalent in other portrayals, such as Empire. The magnetism between the now adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (André Holland) feels electric, as both men come to grips with their lives and their feelings toward each other.
This strong ensemble features several superb performances, most notably by all three actors playing Chiron in the different periods of his life (Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes), Harris, Holland and the brilliant Ali, who is clearly a major role away from becoming a big star.
Following up his moody Bay Area indie with this sweltering southern tale provides Jenkins another successful showcase. His last two films clearly display that Jenkins is an artist who deserves a larger canvas to tell bigger and bolder stories. While we hope he gets that opportunity, it is fair to say that he may not find a subject more important to him than this story.
Moonlight is a revelation and a story well told about so many people who have been forced to live their lives in anonymity, simply for being Black and Gay in America. Jenkins’ film may ultimately be a healing balm in helping so many people understand the plight of those who only need to adhere to William Shakespeare’s timeless proclamation, “This above all: to thine own self be true.”