Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Written by: Barry Jenkins (screenplay), Tarell Alvin McCraney (story)
Starring: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes and Naomie Harris
Moonlight, a coming-of-age film from Barry Jenkins, is a moving, intimate epic. Told in three stages of his protagonist, Chiron’s, life — as a young boy (Alex R. Hibbert), a teenager (Ashton Sanders) and an adult (Trevante Rhodes)– Jenkins and the three actors who portray Chiron show his evolution from a quiet, cripplingly shy child to a more confident adult without losing sight of his pent up frustration and insecurity.
When we first see Chiron, he’s a frantic blur, a boy fleeing through grass from schoolyard bullies in Miami, his backpack thrashing behind him. To escape, he heads to a largely abandoned drug den and tries the doors until one opens. Locking it behind him, he’s finally alone and, temporarily, safe. It’s not long before Juan (Mahershula Ali), a drug dealer who becomes a warm, caring father figure to the tormented boy, breaks off one of the wooden panels covering the window.
Chiron won’t talk to him or even make eye contact at first. He doesn’t know Juan’s true intentions, and neither does the audience. It’s not until Juan takes him home to his girlfriend Teresa (a scene-stealing Jannelle Monáe) and allows him to spend the night that he finally starts to open up. It’s the beginning of a tender parental relationship with the couple. Teresa and Juan’s home becomes a refuge in Chiron’s chaotic life, a place where he can talk freely without immediately being shut down.
These scenes clash with the ones at his true home, where his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is exceedingly consumed by crack addiction. Juan is both her supplier and, when he catches her in a car smoking, lecturer. Ali registers the hypocrisy on his character’s face when Paula points this out with surprise and a bit of disgust. Juan is a source of solace for Chiron but also, indirectly, a source of pain.
Juan is gone after the first act, though his absence haunts the movie’s second, when a teenage Chiron continues to show up at Teresa’s doorstep when things are too rough at home for him to bear. He’s still relentlessly bullied at school, and remains a loner, internalizing his torment because he has no outlet. That seems to change as he develops a relationship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the one person at school who seems to treat him as a friend and, eventually, as more.
A large chunk of the second act is dedicated to an intimate nighttime conversation the two share on the beach. It starts off with them sharing a blunt and watching the blue-black waves crash against the shore. The scene unfolds with a delicate simplicity. Jenkins largely plays out the gradual, meandering conversation in simple shot/reverse shot. Kevin has a unique ability to make Chiron, who he nicknames ‘Black’ rather than calling him ‘Little’ like others at school, feel comfortable by revealing his own vulnerability.
“I cry so much sometimes I think one day I’m gone just turn into drops,” Chiron tells him.
“But then you could just roll out into the water, right?” Kevin responds.
Jenkins ascribes a spiritual healing power to the beach throughout the movie. It’s the place where Chiron, as a boy, was spontaneously baptized by Juan, his entry into the water overwhelmed by Nicholas Britell’s stirring, string-heavy score. And it’s also the place where, as a teenager, Chiron has his first sexual encounter with Kevin. The way Ashton Sanders lets Chiron’s nervous energy play across his face, or how he seems surprised by simple acts of kindness, is devastating.
The disarming intimacy on display in this scene at the beach is offset by a brutal betrayal the next day at school, one that ends the second act with a series of abrupt, violent confrontations. At first, the Chiron of the first two segments seems to have much more in common with each other than the grown-up that surfaces in the movie’s final chapter, though some of that childhood insecurity bubbles back up.
Now living in Atlanta and dealing drugs after a stint in prison, Chiron seems more comfortable in his own skin. He berates an underling about being short on cash before letting on that he’s just teasing, an interaction that would have been almost unthinkable for the shy teen in the preceding segment. However, old habits die hard when he receives an out-of-the-blue phone call from Kevin (now played by André Holland), who tells him a song came on the juke box at the restaurant where he now works and made him think of him. He tells Chiron that if he’s ever back in Miami, he should stop by.
That night Chiron dreams of Kevin, a slow-motion interlude that shows him leaning against a building and looking directly into the camera as he exhales a cloud of cigarette smoke. It’s an effortlessly sexy image, one that prompts Chiron to wake up the next morning for an impromptu trip back to Miami. When he arrives unannounced at the restaurant where Kevin works, the two quietly rekindle the spark they felt in high school.
“Yeah. We here, Chiron,” Kevin tells him, registering his bewilderment that ‘Black’ is suddenly sitting right in front of him. The extended dialogue sequence plays out in the same way as their earlier one on the beach; a casual, intimate conversation that strikes at an unspoken longing. Jenkins structures it around Kevin making special accommodations for Chiron around his everyday duties at the restaurant; lovingly cooking a “Chef’s Special” or bringing a half-full bottle of wine and two plastic cups to the table and forcing Chiron to drink with him in between handling customers. Holland and Trevante Rhodes are extraordinary here, conveying an attraction years-in-the-making with their every gesture and line of dialogue.
It’s exceedingly rare to see a film like Moonlight, a black, queer coming-of-age story that morphs into a beautifully observed romance, get a nationwide release and even an awards push. It’s nice to see the film get this kind of exposure, and hopefully it leads to Jenkins getting more resources for his next endeavor. However, the breathtaking artistry with which he realizes this deeply personal vision transcends whatever awards hype Moonlight might garner. Jenkins charts Chiron’s inner life and emerging queer identity with extraordinary empathy and images of overwhelming power, finding rhyming verbal and visual cues that echo across decades.