There are a lot of hard truths in Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, and many of them are so difficult that the characters cannot bring themselves to utter them aloud. Several of the film's most powerful moments find a person's face making these unspeakable truths clear; betraying their silence with heartbreaking clarity. It's telling that the film's central character speaks less than anyone.
His name is Chiron, and the film allows us to observe three different defining chapters in his life. The first chapter (“Little”) spotlights him as a young boy (Alex Hibbert) who struggles to fit in with the other kids in his class. His neglectful mother (Naomie Harris, Skyfall) treats him poorly, and his father isn't in the picture at all. A local drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, House of Cards) feels sorry for the kid, takes him under his wing and tries to encourage him to open up. Chiron won't say much, but begins making repeat visits to Juan's house (where Juan's girlfriend Teresa – played by Janelle Monae – cooks him the sort of food he can't get at home). His only friend at school is a boy named Kevin (Jaden Piner), who recognizes that Chiron is the sort of kid who is likely to get bullied and tries to help toughen him up. Meanwhile, Chiron also begins to seriously think about his own sexuality for the first time... particularly in the wake of an incident in which his fellow classmates hurl a homophobic slur at him.
The characters seen in this chapter continue to play significant roles in chapters two (“Chiron”) and three (“Black”), which respectively follow Chiron into his teens and adulthood. This is true regardless of whether or not they appear onscreen: Juan is no longer seen after the first chapter, but his influence on Chiron's life can be felt very strongly (particularly in chapter three, where we see Chiron stepping into Juan's profession and sporting his signature black do-rag). Sometimes the characters are played by different people (Harris continues to play Chiron's mother from start to finish, but Kevin is played by Jharrell Jerome in chapter two and Andre Holland in chapter three), but all of them have sharply-drawn through lines.
Broadly speaking, one could say that Moonlight is an examination of what it is to be gay, black and poor in America. However, it recognizes that the best way to do that is to zero in on a specific individual who feels like a unique, complicated person rather than a categorical stand-in. It doesn't traffic in lazy moralizing, cheap melodrama or overwrought miserablism, and tells its story with the kind of attentive specificity that allows it to become much more than an “issue movie.” It also gives us a story that feels almost shockingly fresh: we have seen pieces of this world detailed elsewhere – this certainly isn't the first movie to tackle drug addiction, or the relationship between poverty and crime, or the challenges of navigating sexual uncertainty – but we've never seen them arranged quite like this, or seen them brush up against each other in such compelling ways. For that matter, we rarely see any movie arranged with quite so much directorial eloquence.
The film's three sections are labeled i, ii and iii, suggesting that we're watching a visual symphony. Indeed, the film itself has a deeply musical quality, offering new arrangements for a variety of recurring themes throughout and swelling with emotion at precisely-chosen moments. Jenkins demonstrates a talent for smoothly transitioning from stark naturalism to dreamlike reveries; cleverly mirroring the way Chiron's own mind drifts between reality and dreams. His storytelling is emotionally direct but filled with elegant, subtle touches: just observe the way a quick shot of a license plate reveals a host of information about where a character's mind is at.
The film is loaded with rich performances, with Harris, Ali and Andre Holland delivering particularly strong supporting work. Holland captures something remarkable in his scenes as the adult Kevin, essaying a character who is more or less at peace with who he is but who is experiencing fresh pangs of guilt rooted in long-dormant memories from his past. The three actors playing Chiron do a beautiful job of working together to capture the character's soul, and the character's core remains consistent even as external changes occur. He speaks with increasing frequency as the film progresses, but doesn't fully open his heart to someone until the film's conclusion. The revelations offered by that moment hit hard: it's not just what he says, but that everything we have learned about him up to that point so sharply confirms the truth of what he is saying. This is one of the year's best films.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 110 minutes
Release Year: 2016