(2016, Barry Jenkins)
Two years ago, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was one of the major talking points of the year in film – a breathtaking journey that showed the coming of age of its main character over the course of 12 years. It was easy to see why it drew the acclaim that it did, yet at the same time centering a story around the experience of growing up as a straight white male in America gave off a slight whiff of been there done that. The technique was impressive, but we’ve seen that story told time and again over the decades in film. Something that we haven’t seen nearly as frequently, if at all really, is an equally affecting and intimate portrait of the existence of a gay black man portrayed on screen. Barry Jenkins is here to start to redress that balance with Moonlight, his first film in eight years, after his debut feature Medicine for Melancholy. Chronicling the transition from adolescent to teenager to adulthood, Jenkins casts three different actors (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) to depict Chiron, a man who spends his whole life struggling to find acceptance as he grows up in a rough neighborhood in Miami.
Forging a relationship with local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who becomes a father figure to make up for the absence of one, and his affectionate partner Teresa (Janelle Monae) isn’t enough to save Chiron from the beatings at school that he receives for being different, the difficulty reconciling why it’s so hard for him to fit in, or the troubles he faces at home with his unstable addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris). It’s a very specific story, beautifully told with a style from Jenkins that resembles a form of meditative cinematic poetry, yet the greatest strength of Moonlight is that it never feels like a film that shuts off those outside of this particular experience. Rather, Jenkins builds a bridge of understanding that draws natural empathy for the struggles that someone living this life endures while also bringing forth universal themes that we can all relate to. I’m certainly not someone who has had to live with the difficulties that Chiron faces, but I was constantly finding moments and ideas throughout the film that spoke to my own experience, from the themes of loneliness and feeling like you don’t belong, to the ease with which you can slip back into the comfort of an old relationship, even after all of the terrible things that happened to drive you apart from that person.
For Chiron, that person is Kevin, a close friend who is also played by three different actors (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, Andre Holland) through each of the different time periods that Moonlight traces. Every actor excels in this remarkable ensemble, to a point where it’s almost disingenuous to really point to anyone as being the standout of the cast, but the film really hits its high point in the final section, almost exclusively devoted to one night between the two men years after they had gone off their own ways. Seeing them come back together, after so long apart with such different experiences, speaks tremendously to the power of what Jenkins gets across in his film, and the chemistry between Rhodes and Holland is positively electric. As is the case with the rest of Moonlight, there’s no pomp to Jenkins’ portrayal of this encounter, none of the exploitative poverty porn that can seep into films rooted in these kind of communities, nor any showboating from the director or his cast that would feel disingenuous in a film as quiet and unassuming as this. Jenkins simply lets this story exist in a way that feels organic, never drawing attention to itself, but always feeling potent and made from a place of deep understanding. It’s wonderful to see a film depicting this kind of experience being embraced as wholly as Moonlight has been, and one can only hope that it will open doors for opportunities to see a wider range of experiences portrayed in film moving forward.