Under normal circumstances, growing up is hard. Trying to find the mixture of ingredients that makes who you are, while making sense of the influences that surround you is a formidable task. Think about your own youth, regardless of how well you had it, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Now try adding a life of abject poverty into the mix, living with a neglectful mother in an area where, as Kanye West once put it on Two Words, “there’s only two places you can end up, dead or in jail.” If that isn’t enough, imagine through all of this, trying to come to terms with your sexuality in a boys club culture that doesn’t look too kindly upon homosexuality. Moonlight tells the story of such a boy—Chiron—dealing with these things in three distinct phases of his life (as a child, teenager, and young adult).
Moonlight is not how young black men, especially ones coming from impoverished backgrounds, are oft depicted in pop culture. We usually come across the story of the alpha male, the man who needs to get tough and rise above in order to survive in his environment and hopefully overcome it on his way to something better. The vulnerability we see usually comes from this struggle, not knowing if he can become what he needs to so he can persevere. The character of Chiron is different. A shy, awkward child, one who gets bullied at school and neglected at home, and who generally retreats into himself in the face of adversity. This is the universal language of growing up, not some Hollyowoodized version of what we wished we would have done in similar circumstances. The depicted moments of Chiron’s childhood are real and they are raw. As the film moves into its second act, we are witness to how Chrion’s character tries to deal with his burgeoning sexuality. The film paints these scenes with the complexity and insecurity that fills our teenage years.
The film’s final act shows us what has become of Chiron, from how he is shaped by the experiences he has had as a young man to the questions that still linger within him. The emotion swells in this final act, but is done with a beautiful understated grace. Meaning is conveyed throughout the film not so much with words, but with looks and movement. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the three actors who portray Chiron, employing the physical ticks and expressions you would expect when portraying a character such as this. Even more impressive, considering the three did not meet each other during filming! Other standouts include Mahershala Ali, in an Oscar winning portrayal of a drug dealer that the young Chrion develops a relationship with, and Naomie Harris, who plays his drug addled, neglectful mother.
It’s hard to really talk about all of the moments that make Moonlight work so well, as each one is worth experiencing on your own. I do not want to rob you of growing alongside Chrion, feeling his struggle along with him. From the solid performances to the in-your-face cinematography that makes you feel like an active participant in the story, Moonlight dares to tell a tough, meaningful tale and succeeds in every facet. In what could have easily come off as a heavy handed cliché of a film, Moonlight handles the material with the respect it deserves. Moonlight’s story is universal, and while the lens may be different, it is tough not to see at least a little of yourself in Chiron.