Moonlight is based on the play by Tarell McCraney, but in no way could you possibly consider Barry Jenkins’ magisterial adaptation ‘stagy’ or, for that matter, anything other than thrillingly cinematic. In his devastating look at the struggle of growing up gay, black, and poor in Miami, Jenkins uses every tool that film provides him to put us in the head of Chiron, whose coming of age we follow through three distinct chapters of his life. From a glorious score to breathless chases and dizzying long takes, Jenkins’ direction melds with a emotionally nuanced script and uniformly exceptional performances to create a deeply moving and utterly vital study of identity.
Each of the three sections is titled by the name that Chiron goes by at that period of his life, and we meet him first as a young boy, nicknamed Little by his classmates. Complete newcomer Alex Hibbert is amazing in the role, and his chemistry with Mahershala Ali, playing local drug runner and kindly father figure Juan, is remarkable. A scene where Juan reveals that he too was known by a nickname as a child in Cuba (Blue, after the colour his black skin looked in the moonlight), allowing Little to understand, and then communicate, with him, is a masterclass in restrained revelation and reaction.
Ali is phenomenal as Juan, the physical embodiment of Moonlight’s message of choosing your own definition of being a man. He’s at the top of the local criminal chain, commanding respect and fear in a very traditional display of masculinity, but is kind and fatherly with emotional openness and tolerance that makes him the most important person in Little’s life. His quiet fury at being forced to explain to Little what is meant by ‘faggot’ stands amongst the year’s most powerful acting. Very few actors have a more versatile or effective laugh than Ali, and he deploys it here in very short bursts, punctuating otherwise despairing moments with effortless lightness.
He first finds Little in an abandoned apartment generally frequented by dope fiends, with the 9 year old scared out of his wits. Little doesn’t fully comprehend his identity yet, but the other boys sense something of the other in him, even if none of them really understand that that difference is his sexuality. This makes him a target, and with his mother Paula (Naomie Harris, the only actor to appear in all three segments, and sensational in all of them) coming apart at the seams, there’s no respite at home. Jenkins lays the foundation of Chiron’s later identities here flawlessly, from the lessons he takes from Juan and Teresa (Janelle Monae) – Juan’s girlfriend who becomes Chiron’s preferred mother figure – to a friend telling him that all he needs to do to fit in is not ‘be soft’.
In the first third of the film, we get some Big Moments, with our finding out just how systematically Little’s life has been torn apart by his jealous mother particularly wrenching, but, as with the rest of the film, Jenkins never provides a typical blowout scene. Instead, he grips your soul with a vice from the very first scene, and whilst he never outright crushes it, he never lets it go either. As Little grows up into teenagehood (where he is played by Ashton Sanders), he gets caught between his initial nickname and his future nom-de-plume of Black, an effective demonstration of how fluid and ill-defined one’s identity is as a teenager, especially when a key part of it must remain hidden.
Act 2, titled Chiron, is the most consistently needling of the three, with the already hostile high-school environment becoming genuinely threatening as Chiron’s classmates get bolder and bolder in their attacks on him, their physical and verbal violence always loaded with homophobia. Necessarily, it also features the film’s single most cathartic sequence, as Chiron’s classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) shares an intimate moment with him on a Miami beach – the first and only time that Chiron feels able to truly let his guard down, before the bullying comes to a heartbreaking conclusion that forces Chiron to move away from his home state.
Ten years later, and Chiron (now Trevante Rhodes) has fully embraced a false identity, using the toxic lie of traditional masculinity to guard himself completely from the world. Going solely by Black and living in Atlanta, he’s brought back to Florida by a call from Kevin (now Andre Holland). They haven’t seen each other for a decade, and their lives have taken distinctly different paths, but there’s a unity of spirit about them that lets these problems slowly melt away over the course of an evening.
They meet in Kevin’s diner, in a scene immaculately crafted in every aspect. Believable reunion dialogue is delivered by two intensely brilliant performers, and the diner feels as lived in and storied as any location you could hope to see on screen. Kevin’s cooking of his ‘chef’s special’ for Black – a Cuban dish, bringing things round into a perfect full circle – is wonderfully tactile, and Moonlight takes its time in letting us take every detail of the scene in.
This attention to the minute, yet essential, details is in evidence from start to finish, most visibly in the casting. Not only are all three Chiron actors superb, but they’re so clearly the progression of the same person, even with the distinct changes in physique. Trevante Rhodes, a former athlete, is enormous, a very far cry from ‘Little’, but the same near-silent energy pervades his very being in every moment. Jenkins and DOP James Laxton never let the camera outside of Chiron’s perspective, crafting one of the year’s most completely drawn characters.
If one were to look for signs that Moonlight’s origins lie in the theatre, the very small cast list would be the strongest evidence. He’s making what is undoubtedly a Big Film, but Jenkins keeps the story small and individual to ensure its weapons-grade emotional power. As Black once again becomes Chiron in the company of Kevin, Jenkins imbues these later scenes with a beautiful hope that is earned magnificently. Moonlight is under two hours long, soaring past in what feels like half that time, yet it also feels like we’ve seen the entirety of someone’s early life. A truly astonishing achievement.