It had been a while since I’d looked at a movie truly as a work of art. I did so with Moonlight.
The story, in a nutshell, revolves around Chiron – a boy growing up gay, black, poor and without proper parental care in Liberty City, Florida. We see almost everything in the film from his present perspective. Flashbacks are rare, or images of other people outside his surroundings.
The characters’ sadness and struggles are made subtle. Outpourings of emotion are like dashes of bright color that only highlight one or another part of the cinematic canvas, and make a special impact and point that way.
The central struggle involving acceptance of sexuality and self – and rejection by others – transcends the characters’ social setting. Anyone who has ever been bullied or suffered some kind of abuse can relate to Chiron. We use different coping mechanisms depending on the options available to us – I am not one to judge the character’s choices. Survival can be a tricky thing.
The film is divided into three parts: Chiron’s childhood, adolescence and adulthood. Three actors play him in each of the phases: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. The transition is incredibly smooth from one to the other.
Although all three actors do an admirable job, Hibbert’s silence and ability to convey emotions and the weight of his pain with his eyes and body language are particularly haunting. The child cowers with fear of his volatile, drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris), his cruel classmates and himself. They call the child a “fag.”
Chiron spends his time running and hiding rather than fighting. Until one day, he snaps.
There is no overacting in Moonlight. The actors are excellently cast and solid in their performances.
Chiron’s most important and defining friendships are with drug dealer Juan (Oscar winner Mahershala Ali) and classmate Kevin (also played by three different actors for the phases of his life). Kevin is undergoing his own identity struggle from an early age. This makes his relationship with society and with Chiron complicated.
The two are basically Chiron’s only friends, along with Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe, also Ali’s co-star in Hidden Figures). The warm-hearted, and also maybe childless couple decides to care for the boy informally.
Perhaps Juan sees part of himself in Chiron. Perhaps he feels guilty that he sells drugs in Liberty City and that drugs have a direct negative impact on the boy’s life. Juan lives in a nicer house elsewhere.
I wish Moonlight would show us more about characters other than Chiron, including what ultimately happens to Juan. But then again, the explicitness might’ve taken away from the movie’s artistry.
The last shot of Juan we see is of him in tears. It’s during a scene with Chiron and Teresa that is all the more powerful for the subtlety and restraint the actors and script manage to maintain.
Moonlight is the surprise 2017 Best Picture Oscar winner, and based on a semi autobiographical manuscript by Tarell Alvin McCraney. It could also have been a theater play in which the audience sits in a circle very closely to the stage in the center. It feels very intimate to watch. It’s more important to look closely rather than listen.
Words are sparse, and often whispered. To me, the looks and gestures the characters give are the most crucial elements in Moonlight.
This is, above all, a character-centered movie. We only see hints of their surroundings. They have been largely painted pastel and unobtrusive by the filmmakers’ brush.
The setting is almost inconsequential – it involves a poor neighborhood, but it could probably be anywhere in the world with a beach. This probably makes it more universal somehow.
I lived for a long time near Miami and worked sometimes in Liberty City, where the movie is set. But I only really recognized one place – a beach boardwalk – which is precisely where the film’s climax (literally) happens. It is an interesting choice by the director, Barry Jenkins, who himself is from Miami.
The beach symbolizes a place of liberation for Chiron. It’s where he learns how to swim and allows himself to give in to his urges. The color and concept of blue have a special meaning in the movie – if you blink, you might miss it.