A gritty, art house, coming of age tale about a young boy who is bullied and brought up by a single druggie mother, Moonlight plays out as a slice-of-life reality piece. It chronicles a black youngster from primary school age until his early 30s, as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough Miami neighbourhood.
Moonlight features three actors playing the principal character, Chiron, known first as “Little” at age 10 (Alex Hibbert), then as a 16-year-old (Ashton Sanders) and finally as “Black” as a grown man (Trevente Rhodes). One of the first scenes is young Chiron fleeing from bullies in his housing project until he is rescued by a Cuban-born drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who becomes his mentor and unofficial guardian (with the help of Juan’s girlfriend Teresa, played by Janelle Monáe). In the second chapter, Chiron interacts with mate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), deals with the declining state of his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) and a schoolyard incident that changes the course of his life. And, finally, we see how he turns out once fully mature. Throughout, Chiron feels a great deal but says very little. He is largely unable to express his feelings and finds it awfully difficult to trust others.
Moonlight was conceived in drama school as a class project by playwright and Miami native Tarell Alvin McCraney, a member of the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago. It was his evocation of his own upbringing. The screenplay was written and the movie is directed by Barry Jenkins (who wrote and directed Medicine for Melancholy eight years ago). By coincidence, Jenkins came of age in the same rough and tumble neighbourhood as McCraney, where much of the film unfolds. The pair didn’t know each other as children, but their formative years were remarkably similar.
So it is that Moonlight is a portrait of contemporary African American life, an intensely personal and poetic meditation on identity, family, friendship and love. Not all the language is readily understandable, but the script is strong and powerful, as is the ensemble casting. It is hard not to feel moved by what unfolds. I found the words “if only?” reverberating in my brain.
Mahershala Ali gives a memorable performance as the drug dealer who takes young Chiron under his wing. The moral quandary at the heart of his characterisation is apparent early on and then it becomes a question of how he and Chiron deal with that. While we see the consequences of drug peddling, in this case – unlike the vast majority of films where illicit substances are front and centre – the so-called villain has a softer side. In the end though, this is a tale about how one’s life is formed and fed by one’s earliest experiences. It is compelling material.
My biggest reservation concerned the transition of teenagers Chiron and Kevin through to adulthood. Granted they hadn’t seen each other for more than a decade, but the adult iterations of themselves bore no physical resemblance to their teenage versions. To me that detracted somewhat from the emotional attachment that we – the audience – had established to their characters, notwithstanding the impact of their reunion. Overall, though, this is intelligent, thought-provoking filmmaking with real impact. Rated M, Moonlight scores an 8 out of 10.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders, Trevente Rhodes, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris
Release Date: 26th January, 2017
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television