Moonlight is the coming-of-age story of Chiron, who struggles to understand himself amidst a small world of people who are increasingly disinterested in him. It is a quiet, elegant, brilliant film, and to miss it in theaters would be a disservice for any filmgoer.
Directed by Barry Jenkins and adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Chiron’s story is told in three acts, with stops in childhood, high school, and adulthood, ending when Chiron is at last beginning to grow comfortable with who he is. Like the best romances and melodramas, the film ends before we see his stabler days, before we can watch Chiron navigate the world as a fully-realized adult.
Chiron is played by three actors: Alex Ribbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, who masterfully portray a complex young man who has a lot on his mind but very little to say. (The Screen Scholars audience may recognize Rhodes from If Loving You Is Wrong and Westworld.) How lucky we are that the film found three immensely talented individuals to bring Chiron to life.
Chiron’s physical world is very small; the film populates his story primarily with his mother (Naomi Harris), who is drug-dependent, and the people who truly see him: his childhood friend Kevin (astoundingly portrayed by André Holland as an adult), and a couple who come to care for him, dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe). There is deserved Oscar buzz for Ali, who only orbits Chiron’s life during his youth, but his presence affects Chiron–who becomes a drug runner as an adult. More importantly, though, Chiron is able to transition into adulthood as a result of Juan’s influence.
Moonlight has very little dramatics in its story, but its most affecting scenes are reminiscent of cinema’s weepiest melodramas. Chiron is a boy and man of few words, and the film’s most poignant scenes are also met with silence and carefully framed shots of Chiron and Kevin’s faces.
Those scenes are when the full theater are most rapt, a credit not just to Holland and Rhodes, but to the film’s editing, cinematography (Chiron’s Miami is a heavy, gorgeous world to slip into), sound, and music.
A lot has been written about the writing, casting, and relationships that form Moonlight, but the music struck me profoundly. In addition to the Nicholas Britell’s brilliant score, its apt choices are in Chiron’s third chapter, “Black.” A tougher, bulkier Chiron fills his silences with Goodie Mob and Jidena, though his drive from Georgia to Miami to see Kevin is set to the softer, romantic “Cucurrucucu Paloma” by Caetano Veloso. The song purportedly tells the story of a man who waited infinitely for the attention of a woman he loved.
The theatre’s silent sobs hit a full crescendo when Kevin, having successfully summoned Chiron to Miami, plays “Hello Stranger,” Barbara Lewis’s 1963 hit on a diner jukebox: Hello, stranger/It seems so good to see you back again/How long has it been?/It seems like a mighty long time/I’m so glad/You stopped by to say “hello” to me/
Remember that’s the way it used to be/Ooh, it seems like a mighty long time. We were living with the same ache and satisfaction as Carol. Until this point Chiron has pretended to be meaner, tougher, straight; suddenly the world has opened to him with the possibility that doesn’t need to hide from himself.
Jenkins has crafted a gorgeous, immersive moving film. It is a joyous thrill to behold.