Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight opens with young Chiron sprinting away from bullies and hiding away in a derelict building. It’s a telling moment into his tortured psyche as we follow Chiron as he comports himself inward to hide his burgeoning sexuality.
Moonlight is split into three parts, with three different actors playing Chiron at different junctures of his life. It could feel like a jolt to the viewer, but as embodied by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, we see an already-weary Chiron grow to resent his personhood and retreat inwards.
As bullies clock his burgeoning sexuality before he can, Little (Alex Hibbert) is silent but seen with warm clarity by the neighbourhood drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his partner Theresa (Janelle Monaé). When he asks Juan what a f** is, the moment is loaded with expectation, but Jenkins reframes it as Juan schools Little on forging his identity on his own. Ali is such a staggering presence in this film that you wish he was in it for longer, but I’ll be rooting for him to be in the Best Supporting Actor race.
In the second jump, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is an angular and awkward teen who’s being decked in the hallways and called “gay” in class. He’s seeks refuge with Theresa, away from his crack-addicted mother (a standout Naomie Harris). There’s also Kevin, (Jharrel Jerome) a former rough-houser who becomes his first lover, and their moment on the beach has real heat, as the camera focuses on Chiron’s hand clinching the sand.
Moonlight could have been relentlessly sad, and it frequently is heartbreaking, but Jenkins revels in small nuances, like Juan taking Little swimming, the classical music underscoring key moments, the joshing between Kevin and Chiron, and how Chiron tightly clings to his bag in the school hallways. Chiron is a striking alternative in the canon of coming-of-age films like Boyhood or The Tree of Life. A young black man’s experiences may not have the insisted universality of the others, but is given so much empathy and warmth in his coming of self, however fractured it may be.
It’s in the last chapter where the film gets the most poignant and hopeful as Chiron, now muscled up and wearing grills as a gangster in Atlanta. Masculinity is such a gendered performance and we see how the passage of time has made Chiron into a shell of himself. He’s up early lifting weights and doing press-ups, until a chance phone call from Kevin (Andre Holland) shakes him up. It’s that rush of the past that prompts Chiron to drive to Miami to see his friend. It’s a startling and furtive encounter as the two men look to see if the boys inside still glimmer through.
Moonlight is a terrific study on how a man’s identity can become constricted and performative in ways that shut off a part of himself that simmers beneath. Whether it’s changing his walk or his image, Chiron is a figure of hardened loneliness where he’s not to be touched for fear that “I cry so much I think I’d turn into drops.” Instead of flowering in his journey, Chiron retreats until his identity becomes a prison of his own creation after years of studied manhood.
Moonlight is likely to break your heart, but it leaves you with an understanding that the universal coming of self doesn’t need to look the same…