If your life was separated into three distinct time periods, what would be your defining moments? What struggles would haunt you through time, and how would you stand strong? Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age film Moonlight examines this and more as Chiron (aka Little, aka Black) grapples with the adversity of his environment and the hardships that his wavering sexuality hands him while growing up in the tough town of Miami.
Little (as he’s called in Part 1) lives with his junkie mother, who’s bright and full of love when we first meet her, but transforms into a monster he must escape when she’s high. One day, while being chased and taunted by neighborhood bullies, Little meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), a comforting, father figure-type who also happens to be a local drug dealer. Juan and Teresa (Janelle Monáe) take Little in for the night before returning him home to his verbally abusive mother, but the connection they make with the little boy over time will help him survive his tough years ahead.
Juan and Teresa represent role models we wish we all had, and hopefully do have, in our lives. They’re brave, strong adults who serve as Little’s lighthouse amid tumultuous seas. Ali and Monáe play their parts with resolve; their characters recognize Little’s differences and love him…and help him…regardless. One scene has the young boy asking his makeshift guardians, “What’s a faggot?” Their reactions are equal parts precious and heartbreaking. If only Jenkins could’ve figured out how to incorporate them more.
Parts 2 and 3 make up Chiron/Black’s high school years and later, his young adulthood, as he takes on a muscled exterior and tough persona to help hide his sensitive inner child. He’s also selling drugs, just like Juan. We watch as he transforms from a meek, sullen teenager with little to no friends to this adult version who can stand on his own two feet, but still seems adrift and lost in life. As we watch his high school friendship with Kevin, a nice-enough schoolmate who tries too hard to fit in at Black’s expense, we quickly find out that there’s something more between them. When the two reconnect as adults after a major betrayal in their teen days, we see that both characters are still on the arduous journey of not only finding themselves, but also coming to terms with the people they’ve become.
Throughout the movie, Chiron is constantly asked: “Who is you?” Is he too afraid to say? Does he even know the answer? Moonlight’s beauty lies in its subtleties—of its performances, of its characters, of its sensitive subjects. It’s a lot of things wrapped into one: hopeful, deflating, resilient, beautiful. Every facial expression, and every word both said and unsaid wields power. It’s a moving story, packed with emotion and packed with life. It’s surely an homage to all the Chirons in the world who have to hide themselves away from a society that just isn’t open enough. Jenkins gives us an inside perspective on what it’s like to be a Chiron today, and the result is undeniably near perfect. Grade: A