Anything I have to say about Moonlight is probably moot in light of it having been declared the best film of the year at the Academy Awards, but I must declare that I find this a surprising result, not because Moonlight isn’t a terrifically good motion picture, but because there are some aspects that don’t stand up to closer scrutiny. Make no mistake, this is a highly accomplished sophomore film from director Barry Jenkins. It is a poetic, character-driven exploration of the numerous identities that shape all of us; sexual, familial, gender. Filled with great performances, it is a moving, emotionally charged story adapted from an unproduced play written by Tarrell McCraney who, like Jenkins, grew up in the Miami projects where the film is set.
The protagonist is Chiron, who we first meet as a boy taking refuge in an abandoned apartment complex to evade a group of bullies. It is at this very early juncture that Chiron encounters Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes him back to the house he shares with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). Equal parts shy and suspicious, Chiron has little to say in their early exchanges, but eventually he opens up to Juan, who takes on a father-figure role despite the fact the he is the drug dealer from whom Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris) sources the crack on which she is so dependant. It is a vicious circle in which Juan strives to help this quiet boy, even though it is his product that has rendered Paula so utterly ineffective and put Chiron in harm’s way. Taunted by other kids as a ‘faggot’, Chiron is forced to confront his sexuality in addition to the daily struggles of being a poor, black male in America.
We see Chiron at three separate ages – each played by a different actor – as he grows from a shy boy to an introverted adolescent still at the mercy of neighbourhood bullies before finally emerging as a young man whose imposing physical persona masks the insecurities that haunt him. Whilst it is Ali who has secured all the accolades for his performance, including an Oscar, the performances of the actors who play the three versions of Chiron are equally impressive, with Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders particularly outstanding as the two younger incarnations of a character who spends so much of his life as the object of physical or psychological torment. As good as Ali is, the sudden disappearance of Juan from the narrative comes with little by way of explanation and, whilst his premature death may well be a real consequence of such a lifestyle, Jenkins offers no examination of the impact this might have on Chiron. I mean, Jenkins and McCraney paint Paula as the villain but, given that he willingly took on a mentor/protector role in Chiron’s life, Juan’s disappearance seems the biggest act of betrayal that Chiron encounters, even more perhaps than the beating he cops from Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the boy with whom he had a romantic interlude on the beach. Also problematic is the fact that Trevante Rhodes, who plays the adult version of Chiron, looks nothing like his younger self, so different in fact (and I’m not talking about the physical transformation that the character has undertaken within the narrative) that it is hard to reconcile that it is the same person. Conflicted about his sexuality, and more specifically about his feelings for Kevin (played as an adult by André Holland), it is only in the final moments of the film that Chiron seems to find any sense of clarity.
The dialogue is sparse but the visuals are stunning, from the gorgeous cinematography to the meticulous framing of the actors faces, often making those moments when nothing is said as some of the most powerful. Monae and Harris are also terrific as the only women in the film, two characters who inhabit the same world but are poles apart in almost every way. Jenkins demonstrates subtlety and restraint and Chiron’s experience feels authentic, at least in the first two ‘chapters’. This is a great film that sheds light on the type of experience that remains the reality of so many people in America and elsewhere. Regardless of whether Moonlight may, or may not, be the best film of this or any year, it is a powerful, deeply personal and important piece of work.