Moonlight is proof that stories which are more specific and focused on idiosyncrasies and particulars of individuals are often more equipped to effectively engender universal responses. Director Barry Jenkins, who follows up the quietly excellent (so I hear) Medicine for Melancholy with his second feature here, captures a world of sad circumstances in a beautifully, well, melancholy way. The characters featured here are depicted with such affection that their inability to escape their situations is made even more painful to witness.
The film focuses on the life of Chiron in three stages: childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. From a young age he’s bullied, harassed, and internally tormented for being different. His sexuality seems to be identified by others before he understands it himself, and the perception that he lacks a certain masculine toughness defines him to his peers. This struggle continues over time, as he fights to find some form of self-determination, some kind of identity that he can establish for himself, even if it doesn’t fully represent who he is. His is a personality molded by the currency of being “hard.”
It’s a lesson he learns from a mentor in this childhood stage, a drug dealer named Juan who takes him under his wing. Portrayed superbly by Mahershala Ali, Juan doesn’t believe in allowing others to define who he is, including fulfilling stereotypes the audience may expect of those involved in the drug trade. He’s incredibly compassionate, a compassion shared by his girlfriend, Teresa, played by the terrific Janelle Monáe. In lieu of a drug-addicted mother, Juan and Teresa offer Chiron a safe place of retreat.
The character of Chiron is one that cinema is made for. He’s quiet and introspective, not letting on at what he’s thinking, and most of all, scared. The formal benefits of having an almost completely silent protagonist, that we’re able to observe the world through his eyes and other characters will just talk to fill the silence until they reveal themselves, are not a gimmick but a character trait that feels true and understandable. It just also happens to make for more compelling viewing. But then on top of this, the man Chiron eventually turns into is one built on suppression and a persona thrust upon him by the world around him. This gives a sense of complacency to the fact that we’ve been watching this guy develop and have done nothing to prevent him from turning out the way he does.
The consistency between the three Chirons is startling considering he’s played by three different actors. It’s reminiscent of Never Let Me Go in the way the youngest version feels present in the actions and mannerisms of the older two. Alex Hibbert as Chiron at age 9 and Ashton Sanders as the high school version do outstanding work for kids their age, though I tend to give equal or greater credit for work with young actors to their directors. Jenkins makes the transitions between these stages as seamless as Richard Linklater without the benefit of the same actor aging with the character.
Trevante Rhodes, as the old Chiron, faces the toughest task, as this sequence of the film takes us mostly out of the headspace that the previous sections existed in, where, though we may not have realized it, we were experiencing things through Chiron’s eyes. It’s an interesting structure – other movies may have started with a glimpse of Chiron and gone backwards to explain “how he got here.” This one works because we see his gradual development and personality shaping. It’s powerful stuff.
There are people already pitting this film against The Birth of a Nation, which also played at TIFF, particularly in light of the sexual assault case against Nate Parker. It seems like a meta-analysis regarding Birth (they’re very different movies, even though I see where the comparison comes from), but for its part, Moonlight is devastating in its depiction of masculinity, specifically black masculinity. A lament of toxic masculinity feels like an antidote for muddled conversations around sexual consent, so it’s understandable. But there’s more to Moonlight than sociopolitical statements. Its gorgeous photography is matched by the sweetness of the relationship between Chiron and Kevin, played to perfection in every stage but particularly between Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland. It’s simply one of the best films that played at this year’s festival.
Moonlight captures the limitations of masculine conventions in an incredibly sympathetic, deeply felt way.