By following one man’s life, MOONLIGHT makes a compelling case for being the best film of the year
Do you have plans for Friday night? No? Well, you do now…you are going to see Moonlight in the theater. Yes, it’s that good. No, scratch that, it’s truly great.
Authentic enough to rival a documentary but still breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreaking by turns, Moonlight takes us through the life of a young black man in Miami. Fate has failed him repeatedly, but his story is riveting from beginning to end. Based on the lives of both the director and the author of the source material, we follow Chiron as he deals with a drug-addicted mother, school bullies and his low-income neighborhood while also struggling with his own identity as a gay man of color.
The film is split into three parts and opens with Chiron “Little” (Alex R. Hibbert) as he flees from classmates who chase him into an abandoned crack den. Found and unofficially taken in by crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali (Free State of Jones (2016), Netflix’s House of Cards) and his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monáe, (Rio 2 (2014)), Little quietly and painfully copes with misery at home and school. His mother (Naomie Harris (Spectre (2015)) is a crack addict (supplied, ironically enough, by Juan) and his classmates taunt him over his size and passive nature.
The second part shows Chiron (Ashton Sanders (Straight Outta Compton (2015)) as a teenager, and not much has changed. His mother has sunk even deeper into addiction, not hesitating to shake down her own child for drug money, and the school bullies have escalated into greater physical violence. One bright spot in his life is his friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome (Wheels (2016)), who has nicknamed him “Black” and gently teases him about his silence. While sitting on the beach and sharing a joint one night, Chiron confesses that he cries so much that he sometimes thinks he’ll dissolve into tears. After the admission, Chiron and Kevin share a sexually intimate moment and, afterward, it’s surprisingly completely free from awkward apologies or regret.
The next morning, however, Kevin is tricked by the ringleader of Chiron’s bullies into punching him repeatedly in the face, followed by the gang brutally stomping Chiron as he lies stunned on the pavement. After refusing to name his attackers, Chiron snaps, walks into the classroom and breaks a chair over the bully’s head. The scene ends with Chiron being arrested as Kevin watches in mute horror.
The final scene shows us a now-adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes, OWN’s If Loving You is Wrong) who has adopted the street name of “Black,” after Kevin’s childhood nickname for him. While still reserved, Black is now a drug dealer like his friend Juan before him. He receives a phone call from Kevin, who admits he thought of him when he heard an old song on the jukebox. They catch up briefly, and Kevin encourages him to come by the next time he’s in town. Soon thereafter, Black drives back to Miami (ostensibly to visit his mother, who is now in rehab) and stops by the diner where Kevin is a cook. Kevin makes dinner for him and after the diner closes, they go back to Kevin’s house. Black admits he hasn’t had a physical relationship with any other man since Kevin, and the film ends as they reconcile.
The pure beauty of Moonlight is its seemingly effortless storytelling ability. The movie is riveting from beginning to end and yet completely avoids being heavy-handed or preachy. We are invested in Chiron’s story, and his story includes how he handles being a gay black man. “What’s a faggot?” the child Chiron innocently asks Juan, and Juan simply answers that it’s a name that’s meant to make gay people feel bad. “Am I gay?” Chiron queries. Juan tells him that if he is, he’ll just know.
It would be unfair, however, to dismiss this film by saying “it just so happens” that Chiron is gay. At the end of the film we realize that, although the film is not simply a homosexual coming-of-age story, we were mostly shown events that are at least peripherally related to that fact. There are large gaps of time in between the film’s three sections; indeed, one of the biggest events happens off-screen, and is only referred to twice in conversation thereafter. Many things shape Chiron into the adult he becomes, and his struggle and acceptance of his homosexuality is almost exclusively internal: Kevin is the only one that we know he has come out to.
Everything in Moonlight strikes the perfect note (literally, in the case of the superb soundtrack), I honestly do not have anything critical to say about it. The actors, including the young ones, never appear to be acting, and the three that portray Chiron do so especially well. The directing style is dizzying at times, adding to the realism that is almost a documentary. The colors draw us into the characters’ world. After the last scene, my entire theater spontaneously broke into applause.
Anything else I say will not capture the magical authenticity of this film. Instead I’ll just urge you to see it as soon as possible and experience that for yourself.