Written by Matt Taylor
From its opening moments to the final cut-to-black, every shot of Moonlight feels passionate and deeply personal. And, sometimes, that makes all the difference. When a director feels a connection with his film, he or she can make it easy for audiences to fall in love with it. Barry Jenkins creates a hypnotic, occasionally brutal, but mostly beautiful film that transcends coming-of-age tropes, transforming it into one of the most important films of 2016.
Told in three acts, Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, as he grows up in drug-plagued Miami with a meth addict mother (Naomie Harris). As a child, Chiron (nicknamed “Little”) is mocked for his stature, and perceived as gay by his peers, leading to some truly horrific bullying. But he’s given an unlikely father figure in drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali of House of Cards), who serves as a positive influence, and attempts to teach him what it means to be a man. Eventually, we watch Chiron grow into a teenager questioning his sexuality, and later a grown man still struggling to find his place in the world, all while tracing his relationship with his childhood friend, Kevin.
The first two acts of Moonlight are riveting examples of a coming of age story we see acted out onscreen all too little. These scenes open a window into what it’s like to grow up in a disadvantaged area filled with crime and drugs, while also exploring what it means to be gay in such a heteronormative environment. The opening scenes wonderfully capture how Chiron has been pegged as gay because he doesn’t fit the traditional mold of a young boy, while the second half reveals how those earlier incidents seriously influenced his life and behavior. Typical coming of age tropes are folded into the mix, with everything from first crushes to first sexual experiences, but they’re all told through this creative filter.
Jenkins, basing his screenplay off Tarell McCraney’s story, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, wisely flips the script on many clichés of the “inner-city kid” subgenre. He also gets help from a terrific cast along the way. Mahershala Ali is a warm, welcoming presence as drug dealer/father figure, who easily stands out as the most complex character in the bunch. Juan is very much aware that his profession traps people in an endless cycle of drug addiction, but the film doesn’t condemn his choice, and reveals why so many people are forced to go down a similar path. Ali, to his credit, also captures Juan’s inner turmoil perfectly. His final scene, which is light on dialogue, is devastating to watch. Similarly, Naomie Harris is brilliant as Chiron’s mother, who walks the fine line between a deplorable character and a sympathetic one. Harris not only perfects her American accent and shows off the physical ticks needed to play an addict, but also makes her character a truly tragic one. An Oscar nomination should (hopefully) be in her future.
Moonlight is elevated to a whole different level in its final act, which remains some of the most suspenseful, emotionally draining moments put to film in 2016. Without revealing too much, these scenes find an adult Chiron returning home, reuniting with figures from his past, and being faced with an opportunity that could completely change his life. This leads to an extended sequence in which two characters speak volumes to one another through only body language, as well as a final scene that will twist the knife in your stomach. It will also most likely bring tears to your eyes. From beginning to end, Jenkins doesn’t drop the ball. If anything, these final moments let him hit a home run.
Moonlight feels like the sort of LGBTQ+ film that will receive Oscar attention and, hopefully, break into mainstream pop culture. But don’t let its status as an award show pony detract from its social relevance: this is an important film, as well as an entertaining and well-made one. In the hours that pass after watching it, some of the images and themes will undoubtedly be ringing through your head, and you’ll want nothing more than to experience it all over again.