A silent boy with accusatory eyes. A shy long-limbed teen picked on at school. A musclebound man looking for a connection. All the same person, all lost; all trying to make sense of the world and their place in it.
Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s un-produced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight, directed and adapted by Barry Jenkins, is a powerfully intimate triptych about growing up poor, black, and gay in contemporary America; specifically Miami, Florida. Rather than dwelling on the poverty and degradation, the film is instead a heartbreaking, multifaceted character study that reflect themes of shifting identity and developing sexuality.
Chiron AKA Little (Alex Hibbert – set apart by his accusatory gaze) is a self-contained nine-year-old with no home life of which to speak. Juan (played with rueful dignity by Mahershala Ali) is a local dealer who, along with his radiant girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe, who seems to embody fundamental decency), offer Little dinner and a bed for the night.
Little’s father is gone and his mother, Paula (a frazzled, desperate Naomi Harris), prostitutes herself to support an all-consuming drug habit. The image of her screaming incoherently at him from outside her pink-lit bedroom door will come to be a deep source of trauma for him.
Chiron (Ashton Sanders), no longer little, is a shy, gangly teen and obvious target for the school bullies; particularly the predatory Terel (Patrick Decile), who gets a kick out of tormenting him in front of cronies. His home life is no better; though there is at least one maternal figure on whom he can depend. His best, perhaps only friend, is chilled-out, supposed ladies man Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).
What Chiron is subtly beginning to discover, what he has long suspected – and seemingly those around him who have long attacked him for it – is that he is gay. But how do you come to terms with that, even confide in someone, when you’re so uncertain of everything, even yourself?
Lastly, Chiron now AKA Black (Trevante Rhodes) has grown up and filled out. Still set on this lonely path, though perhaps not the one we would have hoped for or expected, Black receives a phone call from a one-time lover who invites him to stop by should he ever be in the neighborhood.
During this brief conversation all Black’s swagger instantly vanishes and we see in him the insecure young man he once was, the young man who once said “Sometimes I cry so much I feel like I’m gonna turn to drops”, and the ineffable longing that still underlies his existence. Will Black be able to gently recapture that long-ago moment or will it slip away?
A film about becoming, what we choose and what is innate, Moonlight‘s innate plea for grace and fulfillment reminds me of Todd Haynes’ Carol; my favorite of not just LFF 2015 but the year as a whole. Jenkins’ use of enthralling detail – the tangled limbs of two boys play-fighting; a hand grasping the pale sand, grains trickling between fingers – combines with James Laxton’s lightly luxuriant cinematography and Nicholas Britell‘s stirring, string-led score to create a cinematic landscape that is both elegant and deeply empathetic. We come to understand how people make choices, of themselves neither good nor bad, that leave them trapped.
Moonlight is an emotional sympathy without a false note to it. Ranging from the most grounded despair to hope so tremulous it can’t be voiced, it builds from the defining incidents of childhood and ritual humiliations of adolescence to an adult’s aching need for romance.
With astonishing performances from the whole cast – especially Rhodes, who embodies Chiron’s third stage with such reserve and vulnerability – Moonlight should be a strong Oscar contender. Like Carol before it, though, the film may perversely be too beautiful, too expertly balanced.
Like the camera in the scene where Little learns to swim, water lapping against the lens but never fully obscuring it, Moonlight stays afloat despite the weight of social misery and tripartite continuity pressing down upon it. Subtle, captivating, and near perfect, this is a film you have to experience for yourself.
Moonlight will receive its first public UK screenings during the London Film Festival. Click here for more information.