The movie that Moonlight most reminded me of was Boyhood, though of course there are many differences. But it told one young man’s story, from a boy of about ten to a man of about twenty-five, in three discrete sections. Moonlight uses three actors to play Chiron, aka Little, aka Black, but the effect is something of the same–the evolution of a human being. But unlike Boyhood, which told the story of a straight white kid with two parents in his life, Moonlight is about a fatherless gay black male, and his struggle for identity.
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is set in Miami. The first act has Chiron, called “Little,” being chase by a group of boys. He finds refuge in an abandoned building, and is found by Mahershala Ali as the local drug dealer. Ali, unable to get his home address out of him, takes him home and is mothered by Ali’s girlfriend (Janelle Morae).
Eventually Ali takes him home and finds that the boy’s mother (Naomie Harris) is an angry woman. Little hates her, and spends a lot of time with Ali and Monae. One night Ali finds that crack under his control has been sold to Harris, whom he confronts, but she will have none of it. Later, in a quiet scene that has the power of a mule kick, Little (played by Alex Hibbert), asks Ali what a faggot is, and whether he (Hibbert) is one. Then he asks Ali if he sells drugs, and if his mother takes them. The shame on Ali’s face is heartbreaking.
Act II is when Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is in high school. He has one friend, Kevin, but mostly is taunted by bullies. He’s not exactly out, but everyone assumes he is gay. He and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) meet on the beach and smoke pot. Though Kevin is ostensibly straight, he gives Chiron a loving handjob. But Kevin will betray him, and it leads to Chiron being led away in handcuffs.
In Act III, now called Black (a nickname Kevin gave him) Chiron is out of jail and living the life that Ali used to lead, dealing drugs in Atlanta. He gets a call from Kevin, apologizing, though it’s ten years later. Chiron is inspired to drive back down to Miami to meet him in the restaurant where Kevin works. The scene is fraught with tension, as we don’t know what Chiron has in mind.
Moonlight is intriguing but put me off a bit, partly because I went in with high expectations. The dialogue by Chiron is, and I’m sure quite intentionally, stiff and almost inarticulate. He says very little, and when he does talk he doesn’t express himself. He’s almost a supporting player in his own life story. At times his passivity will drive you crazy, but then he acts with rage and it’s too much. I will say this, though, a decision not to give him any thought voiceovers was a good one. It lets us fill in the blanks.
This film won’t be for everyone, whether or not it has a gay theme. It can be slow going, but it builds a quiet momentum. The third act I think is the weakest (though the two actors who now play Chiron and Kevin, Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland, are terrific) because it can’t match the fireworks of the first two acts, instead it just kind of smolders.
But despite my slight reservations, this is a very good film and is likely to be an Oscar contender. Expect nominations for Ali and Harris. She was reluctant to play yet another horrible black mother, which is too much of a cliche, but she is brilliant.