What sets Moonlight apart is how intricate and different it is to anything that is showing on our cinema screens.
Called by many as “one of the best films of the year”, Moonlight is the second film by the talented Barry Jenkins who did not only directed it but also adapted the screenplay from a story called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. Both Jenkins and McCraney grew up in the same neighbourhood in Miami and both had mothers who struggled with drug addiction. Moonlight is not only a reflection of their upbringing, but also an exploration of black masculinity, adolescence, and homosexuality in all its hopes and devastations.
The film chronicles the life of Chiron, an introverted kid who lives with his drug-addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris). We are introduced to him as “Little” (Alex Hibbert) – shy, bullied and silent – racing through the streets to get away from his tormentors. From then on, we follow this boy as he grows up to be the teenager “Chiron” (now played by Ashton Sanders) and eventually becomes the adult drug dealer nicknamed “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). People flicker in and out of Chiron’s life, each leaving their own imprints and their own scars. His mother is loving one day and abusive the next. She haunts him still even when he is a full grown man. There is also Juan, the resident drug dealer played by Mahershala Ali, the man of the moment. A dark-skinned Cuban, Juan is also an outsider and he welcomes Chiron into his home and introduces the boy to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) who becomes the mother Chiron has never had. Lastly, there is Kevin (played as an adult by Andre Holland), Chiron’s only childhood friend who is never quite far away from his thoughts.
Moonlight shines in all departments – cinematography, score, script, to name just a few. But the performances by its actors are something special. All three who play Chiron carry the part with gravitas and depth. Naomie Harris, who shot all her scenes in three days, is powerful and devastating as Paula. And when Kevin comes back into Chiron’s life as an adult, Andre Holland is exquisite. Mahershala Ali as Juan, however, is the unmistakable standout. Earlier this year, Ali graced our small screens with his incredibly layered portrayal of the villain Cottonmouth in Marvel’s Luke Cage. In Moonlight, he brings the same hardness and vulnerability. Juan may be a drug dealer, but there is no mistaking his genuine love and kindness for Chiron. Like he does in Luke Cage, Ali straddles all the lines perfectly. Juan is broken, yet whole. Imperfect, yet complete. And his presence in Chiron’s life can be felt even when he is no longer on the screen.
While watching it, you realise that Moonlight takes it time. There is no rush to say and show everything at once. Rather, it prefers to make the audience exist and feel alongside its characters. Jenkins doesn’t only put himself behind the camera; he puts us there as well. When Paula – high and off her head – is screaming at Chiron, she is literally screaming at us, her eyes looking straight at the camera. Jenkins turns an extremely personal story into something operatic and epic without coming across as trying too hard. The whole piece feels like a play; it is detailed, intimate, visceral. The film shines a light on things that are painful and raw, yet manages to make everything beautiful rather than tragic. And as Chiron travels through his past and his present, we see that he has changed but not quite. In many ways, the tough, battle-hardened drug dealer is still the same person as the neglected, silent child who is willing the rest of the world to fade away.
Chiron or “Black” gets out of his car and lingers by the sea. He watches the waves as they come up the beach. He remembers.
Moonlight makes you miss people, even the ones who you didn’t expect to miss at all.
RATING: 4/5 stars.