The tender, heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself, told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love, while grappling with his own sexuality.
TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: A singular love story in a festival season rich with them, Moonlight tracks the progress of a young black boy growing up in a rough part of Miami. Around 10 when we meet him, silent, melancholy “Little” (Alex R. Hibbert) lives with his mother (Naomie Harris), a drug addict, and spends most of his time wandering the neighbourhood. People decide about Little (that’s his name because that’s what people call him) before he has a chance to decide about himself; his vulnerability makes him prey.
A local drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) takes an interest in Little when he finds him hiding from a gang of kids in a local crack den. Over a series of encounters, Little becomes attached to Juan: at Juan’s home he meets Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who cooks him meal after meal; in a delicate and lyrical scene, Juan teaches Little how to swim. Nicholas Britell’s score mixes classical passages with atonal elements: this is a mood piece, extremely light on dialogue – a character study comprised of impressionistic sketches, three in all, that span a period of about sixteen years.
The format allows Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), who adapted his script from a short by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, to create a portrait from imprinted moments; we have the sense of a character reflecting on the central incidents and impressions of his life. Using minimal cuts and unmotivated camera moment, each scene suggests a search through memory, as if for clues. Sometimes the camera loses focus; water might splash the lens. The figure at the center of the film is more observer than actor: in its first half especially, Moonlight is a portrait of selflessness.
In the film’s second section, we meet 16-year-old “Chiron” (Ashton Sanders), and find that little has changed. As a teenager, Chiron is gawky: he wears his jeans too tight and the wrong shoes; he doesn’t know what to do with his hands. What is only vaguely suggested in the first section becomes explicit: Chiron’s peers suspect he is homosexual, and target him as a result. The film inhabits Chiron’s perspective in a way that can feel insular: his tormentor at school is presented as pure mendacity; his mother is pure disappointment. Teresa, meanwhile, feels a little too good to be true, as the figures we might later call our personal angels tend to do. One of Chiron’s classmates appears more complex: Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) tries to instruct Chiron in the art of self-protection; he uses bluster to deflect attention, he uses his body. But he also shows his friend tenderness, even desire.
"Moonlight asserts the impact of a single moment on a lifetime."
In a scene set on the beach, Kevin effectively draws Chiron into his own body. What follows – the culmination of Chiron’s suffering at school – leads to an almost primal act of self-assertion. From there we reach Moonlight’s third act, in which Chiron becomes Black (Trevante Rhodes), completely unrecognisable at 26. Having moved to Georgia after some time in detention, Black is in the life – gold chains, gold grill, and a very hot phone. But he remains a solitary figure, lonely and somewhat barricaded inside his transformed body.
Jenkins has an extraordinary eye for ordinary spaces, the contexts within which his characters must define themselves. His America is equal parts blight and beauty, a condition perfectly evidenced by the diner, with its checkered curtains, fake flowers, and American flags, where Black finds Kevin (André Holland) working as a cook. Moonlight’s conclusion asserts the impact of a single moment on a lifetime, the way a brief encounter can change the course of our emotional lives. Holland and Rhodes manage to telegraph in two scenes the weight of that encounter, in a dance of yearning and of masculinity, of ego. Moonlight closes on a note of hope, of romantic promise, inflecting with tradition a film marked by fearlessness. The effect is exhilarating; tradition has never felt so necessary, or so new.
Moonlight opens in limited release around Australia on January 26 through Roadshow Films.
Watch the US trailer