‘Moonlight’ shines bright

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Photo courtesy of A24
Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) how to swim in Miami waters.

“Moonlight,” inspired by the unproduced play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” chronicles the life of Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), a gay black man, as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood.  

The film is divided into three chapters: Little, Chiron and Black. The first chapter explores Chiron’s childhood experiences where he is befriended by crack dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who serve as surrogate parents. Chiron’s birth mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is emotionally abusive and addicted to drugs.

The second chapter follows Chiron in high school as he is relentlessly bullied by Terrel (Patrick Decile), a troublemaker who mocks Chiron’s sexuality and his non-masculine traits — like how he’s not someone who would get into a fight. In this chapter, he has his first sexual experience with his childhood friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), on the beach.

Photo courtesy of A24
Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (Andre Holland), now grown up, meet at Kevin’s diner to reconcile with each other after not seeing each other for a decade.

The final chapter shows Chiron, as an adult drug dealer. He forgives his mother, who’s now in a recovery home, and reconciles with Kevin (now played by André Holland), after not seeing each other in a decade.

When films advertise themselves with the overused tagline, “This is the story of a lifetime,” there are obvious reasons to roll your eyes and dismiss the film as pretentious. However, in the case of “Moonlight,” director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins earns that phrase.

“Moonlight” is perhaps one of the most original films to be released in the last decade, as it is very hard to find other films that deal with themes of homosexuality in an urban setting in the way that Jenkins explores it. Jenkins examines themes of growing up in a tough environment, the pressure of not living up to society’s standards of masculinity, and coming to terms with one’s sexuality in such an honest and unconventional way, that it could only be made in the world of independent cinema. His direction doesn’t focus on setting up visually stunning imagery, but rather capture the raw emotions that the characters are feeling in any given moment.

Photo courtesy of A24
Juan (Mahershala Ali) bonds with young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) after swimming lessons in Miami waters.

Though the stand-out scene, visually, is where Juan teaches young Chiron to swim. The scene, accompanied by Nicholas Britell’s compelling score, is shot at water level to give us the sense of Chiron’s struggle to swim. It’s a very touching moment that ends with Juan’s lesson for Chiron, “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be.”

Nicholas Britell’s score makes interesting use of classical instruments, which is an intriguing contrast to the film’s urban setting. While there are a few rap and R&B tracks in the film, they are used to further show Chiron’s distance to his environment.

Photo courtesy of A24
Young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) contemplates life on a Miami beach.

All the performances given in this film are A-plus material, especially the child actors. In the case of Hibbert, he succeeded in displaying his reluctance to talk to his peers, and later on when he expresses frustration with his living conditions. Bigger budget films fail to do what Jenkins captured in “Moonlight.” Jenkins understood that child actors can have a hard time understanding what their dialogue really means and how to deliver lines, but young Chiron’s minimal dialogue felt authentic.

Harris, in her brief but crucial role, is nearly unrecognizable in her performance. Her transformations between each chapter are hard to watch, due to how self-destructive her character is with her drug addiction. She delivers her outbursts in a way that’s frightening but not over-acted. It’ll be very disappointing if she doesn’t get an Academy Award nomination for her performance.

“Moonlight” is without a doubt a must-see for fans of intimate narratives. It’s one of the few films to be released this year that could be described as flawless. The film is like if “Boyhood” had some sort of purpose or point to make. It’s sad to think that a film this good will be overshadowed by bigger films like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” Give this film a chance.


Photo courtesy of A24
Teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) nervously looks through a chainlink fence at the bullies waiting for him outside after school.
Photo courtesy of A24
Teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) looks at his beaten-up face after being assaulted at school by his bullies.