From Writer-Director Barry Jenkins comes Moonlight, a film that traces a young man’s journey from childhood to manhood and how he comes to terms with who he is. Does it resonate or is it just a rote drama?
Based on a play by Tarell McCraney, who has a Story By credit here, the film focuses on Chiron, an African-American boy growing up in Miami. The narrative is divided into three parts, each focusing on a different age in Chiron’s life. The first part sees Chiron as a young boy called Little (Alex Hibbert). Little’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is a drug addict and Little is befriended by a local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who becomes a father figure to the boy. He is also looked after by Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). We also meet Kevin (Jaden Piner), who seems to be Little’s only friend. The other boys bully Little, slinging insults at him and using derogatory terms for homosexuals as they do so. We then cut to high school where Chiron (Ashton Sanders) mostly keeps to himself, but he is still bullied by classmates. This time, the gang is led by Terrel (Patrick Decile). Chiron is still friends with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), but his mother is still in a bad way. It is in high school that Chiron has his sexual awakening, but after an incident at school, he is shipped off to juvenile detention. We catch up with Chiron ten years later in Atlanta. He has adopted the name Black (Trevante Rhodes) and has modeled his life on Juan’s. Late one night, he receives a phone call from Kevin (André Holland) and the two eventually reconnect.
I’ve kept the plot summary as vague as possible, but certain elements need to be revealed in order to properly discuss what works and what doesn’t in this film. Moonlight is a straight up character piece with a very loose plot. The story is in Chiron’s journey of discovering who he is and accepting his sexuality. His story is heartbreaking and Jenkins presents it all very tastefully – there are no graphic sex scenes along the lines of Blue is the Warmest Colour here. The biggest problem with films of this nature, though, is what the audience isn’t given in regards to the narrative. In this way, Moonlight is a lot like 2014’s Boyhood, another film that didn’t really have a strong narrative, but was more praised for its execution. It’s amazing that a film like Moonlight exists as it speaks to a woefully neglected audience, but while it has a stronger narrative through line than Boyhood, like that film, it is missing some key components to the story.
Most of the narrative holes come in the first act, which is problematic as that is where the base of the story is built. The first big one for me was Chiron’s sexuality. There is never one definitive scene presented to the audience that shows that Chiron is homosexual or is exhibiting homosexual tendencies as a boy. All the boys call him “gay,” but sadly, children who have no idea what they’re talking about use the word as an insult. Paula also says to Juan, “You see how he is,” but again, the audience never sees it. We see one brief scene of Little dancing as part of a classroom activity and that’s about it. That’s kind of a lazy stereotype to use in order to show the boy is homosexual. All I really needed was a mention of some behavior Little had demonstrated, but it never comes. It almost seems that Little decides, “Well, the kids call me gay. I must be gay.” It’s all very vague and when the entire film centers of this aspect of his life, it’s kind of important that the audience sees more than just innuendo and kids being cruel.
The other major sticking point that’s never really explained is why Juan takes an interest in Chiron at all. I was constantly waiting for some kind of revelation about Juan – good or bad – but nothing is ever revealed. It’s especially odd considering Juan’s chosen profession. If he had been a counselor or Big Brother at a youth club, I could see him wanting to protect this kid, but the drug dealer with a heart of gold felt a little weak. However, for all of the film’s narrative faults, it more than makes up for them with the cast’s performance.
All the performances here are remarkable, especially the three young men who portray Chiron. Hibbert does a very good job with the loneliness and longing that the character feels. The boy is so numb to the world and everything it has thrown at him, and Hibbert captures that perfectly. He doesn’t say much, but his eyes convey everything. That feeling of isolation continues with Sanders, who also does a great job showing Chiron coming to terms with his sexuality. For me, though, I was really impressed with Rhodes’ performance. He incorporates everything that Sanders does, but then adds a layer of Ali’s performance as he mimics Juan in his public life. It’s amazing to see three actors play the same character so similarly. In most films where we see a character played by multiple actors, the performances are usually so different. The three actors who play Kevin are all great too, but I reserve special praise for Jerome, who really attacks the role with great energy. Holland also does a nice job, but I wanted to see more of him in the film. In that way, the film is also a lot like 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines – another film divided into three distinctive parts that finds the third part lacking a bit narratively. Ali is great as usual, but again, because I couldn’t figure out his character’s angle, I couldn’t really read his performance properly. Monáe is very good in her few scenes and Harris is excellent as Chiron’s mother. For me, she nearly steals the film.
Overall, Moonlight is an important, poignant film that needed to be made, but the narrative weaknesses kept me from loving it. It has some stellar performances from the cast and hopefully all the attention it’s receiving from critics will translate into similar films being made in the future.