One of the most talked about films of this Oscar season has made a return to theaters after it’s original release, which gave me the opportunity to go see it! I was so excited to be in the theater to get in on the conversation about this film, and there is so much to talk about. Moonlight is a tender, unique film with it’s roots in cinema’s rich international history and is one of a vivid portrait of a single place-Liberty City, the neighborhood in which it was filmed. And amidst all of this, it is a fully fleshed story of a person.
The film is a coming of age tale about Chiron, a young black man growing up in the Miami Neighborhood that is Liberty City. His mother, brought to life with a beautifully harsh performance by Naomi Harris, is addicted to crack cocaine but loves her son and struggles to show him that love. His main role models are a local drug dealer and his wife; the drug dealer, Juan, played by Mahershala Ali and his wife, Teresa, played by Janelle Monae. Ali is attracting a particular amount of buzz for his performance, and rightly so- he plays Juan with tenderness, and occupies the strange middle-of-the-ground morality as the only positive role model in this young man’s life while also being a drug dealer. The cinematography by James Laxton is reminiscent of classic French New Wave films like Breathless, but feels somehow more confident. The music, by Nicholas Britell, is so ingrained in the film that I have a hard time remembering any of the score as I write this piece. It called no attention to itself and served only to illustrate Chiron’s journey. The story, a beautiful and raw tale based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is brought to life with a steady hand by director Barry Jenkins. And all of it comes together to tell a simple story: the story of Chiron.
One of the first things I said after coming out of this movie was: I love Chiron. The main character of the film has many different names and is played by three different people: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. These three performers are amazing in their performances, truly bringing this character to life. He felt like an authentic, layered human with complex needs and desires. There is something in the eyes of these three men that brings them together, it feels almost like Boyhood in the way we watch Chiron grow up. Of course, not enough praise can be heaped on Jenkins, who created this character with his actor. I cannot imagine the tender hand that it must have taken to coach the non-actors populating this film to give such a rich performance. You fall in love with this character over the course of the film.
The strength of this performance, and other performances given by the stellar supporting cast, is so crucial because it saves Moonlight from being an “issues” movie. A film about a young man who is black, who is also gay, whose mother is an addict, who lives in a poor part of the country, could have very easily slipped and slid down the slope of preachy and dry. But the film does not focus on any of those particular issues, and isn’t even really about them. In fact, if the film tackles any “issue,” it is an idea of a pervasive and toxic image of masculinity that is forced on each of our young, male characters. The film does is not truly about any of those issues. Instead, it is about a person who could use those words to describe himself. The mother is not another plot device thrown in Chiron’s way- she is his mother, a fully formed person who he loves but is scared of and angry with. His sexuality isn’t just a piece of the salad, it is something that weighs on him, something that he has to consider or consciously ignore. And we have to think about these things with him, and framed through his experiences and choices.
Moonlight is pretty brilliant. It has the right amount of art house, the right amount of mainstream, the right amount of mind, and the right amount of heart. It’s a small story and it means a lot. It has everything to say and doesn’t even shout- much like it’s beautiful, complicated main character.