Two men sit in a diner, reminiscing about the past. They had not seen each other in years, years since a trauma tore them apart. Their words are casual, mostly discussing the various changes within their lives, such as the one man getting married to his high school sweetheart and birthing a child. Despite the casual substance of the conversation, there is a passion to their words, a depth. We know their history and the ancient scars shine through in the tones and octaves of their voice. The family-man plays a song on the jukebox, the song that gave him the courage he needed to give the other man a call. The other man looks over his shoulder to the man standing at the jukebox, and in that moment, the diner seems infinite; separate from the rest of the world, inhabited by two lost souls searching for a way back to reality.
Moonlight is distinguished through these scenes, scenes not of elaborate coincidences or shocking twists, but of raw feeling. The story is told through the emotions of the characters. Chiron, played by three actors at three different points in his life, is the central focus of the film. His struggle is established from his first appearance as the young Chiron, otherwise known as Little (Alex Hibbert), where he is chased by a group of classmates into an apartment complex. There he is found by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a kind and compassionate drug dealer who also happens to be Chiron’s savior.
Moonlight is a film about crushed spirits, adolescent cruelty, closeted sexuality, racial strife, intense poverty, drug abuse, and the will to go on. It is a film about self-acceptance, free-will and destiny, offering brutal, yet tender insight into the makings of a man. Chiron is a closeted homosexual, tormented by other students due to the way he walks, talks, and other characteristics that his classmates seem to believe offer a hint into his sexuality, an aspect that, at the first stage of his life, he doesn’t even understand. He has always felt like an outsider, however, and it is Juan who teaches him that it is okay to accept who you are and not to try to be anybody you are not, a lesson that Chiron slowly forgets after Juan passes away in between the first and second chapter of the story.
It is in the second chapter where Chiron finally explores the feelings he has always kept so dormant. He does this with the boy he will one day reconnect with in a diner many years later, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). An outcast in high school, Kevin seems to be the only friend Chiron has, and Kevin’s constant talk of sex and seduction of the girls at their school only disheartens and confuses Chiron. Chiron is confused throughout his whole life, even after he and Kevin become intimate one night in a scene that is heartbreakingly honest as it is destructive. It is a moment that will haunt Chiron for life, a moment that will lead to Chiron’s confessions of never being touched by another man, despite his most powerful desires. The event to crush Chiron completely is one in which Kevin beats him to a pulp at recess due to another boy, Chiron’s main tormenter, telling him to. In a scene of devastation and complete loss of hope. Chiron continues to get up after each punch, despite Kevin’s pleads for him to stay down.
Second time writer and director Barry Jenkins (after his 2008 film Medicine for Melancholy) makes sure to craft a story as intimate and personal as its subject. The writing is sincere and his direction is subtle and restrained, giving his actors freedom to play the parts as if it were an extension of themselves and not just characters within a movie. Jenkins crafts Moonlight as if it is a work of art. The camerawork makes the film feel like a dream. The landscape is blurred, it is irrelevant. All that matters are the people in focus as well as the ever-expanding emotions that connect them. In a dream, the subject is often under intense scrutiny, and Moonlight takes advantage of that characteristic by using it within a story. For all we know, this whole movie is a dream, a seizure of inner consciousness, ancient desire, and lust. The circumstances are specialized, but the message is universal.
Moonlight is, if anything, an example of the film I one day hope to make. It is a film that doesn’t just compel, but strikes a chord, something deeper, something buried. Like any great film, it sticks with you long after the credits have rolled, especially thanks to the combination of the final two shots, which are the answer to why cinema exists in the first place. It is a thing of intense feeling, smothered in agony, yearning, relief, and regret. Moonlight is a character study of raw emotion, a tragic parable for modern times, especially given the current state of our country. It is also one of the most important films of the 21st Century, and something that I will not soon forget.
5 out of 5