Perhaps the best compliment I can pay Moonlight -- or any film really -- is that when it was over, I really, really did not want it to be. That I desperately wanted it to continue was not a function of a half-finished story. Nor was it because of an ambiguous ending. Rather, it is because Moonlight, as a piece of popular art, is staggering -- its relatively few characters rich, complex and multifaceted, its cinematography both beautiful and purposeful, its score profoundly beautiful and haunting.
The story itself is a simple one, albeit with a superficially unconventional subject. This is a coming-of-age tale. Its protagonist, Chiron, is gay, though great pains are taken at the film’s outset to point out that he is too young to really know what that means. The struggle is plenty real beyond his sexuality, anyway. He is growing up in one of Miami’s roughest neighborhoods and in a single-parent home. His mother, played by an almost unrecognizable Naomie Harris, starts using drugs very early in the story, and the throes of addiction will consume her character the rest of the way.
Rather than using a gradual progression to chart Chiron’s course to manhood, the film uses three distinct points in his life to get us there.
The first is when he’s an elementary school-aged boy and goes by the nickname Little. He’s already being bullied by peers at this stage when he’s taken under the wing of a drug dealer, played by Mahershala Ali, and his girlfriend, played by Janelle Monae, and shown the kind of care and consideration he can’t seem to get anywhere else.
The second comes when he is high school-aged and when he goes by his given name, Chiron. The bullying has grown in intensity. His mother’s drug problem has worsened. His sexual identity can no longer be put off or denied, for better and for worse as it turns out.
And the third comes when he’s fully grown and goes by the nickname Black. He returns to Miami after years away, cutting a muscular figure that is clearly inspired by his mentor in the first part of the film.
There are no real constants in the film. Chiron is played by three different actors across the years. Only two other characters -- Chiron’s mother and Kevin, a childhood friend turned love interest -- even appear in each of the three parts. Harris is the only actor to show up in each stanza. And yet the story itself is so wonderfully, painfully intimate and personal -- a seamless, perfect collage of an ordinary young man finding his own way in the world, clumsily, awkwardly, wrenchingly, beautifully.
Much of what makes Moonlight so powerful is its deliberate avoidance of the capital-M Message it could, in an alternate universe, have set out to drive home. It could make a much bigger deal out of Chiron’s circumstances in the grand scheme of things -- the poverty he lives in, the torment he faces as a result of his sexuality. It instead makes a big deal out of Chiron the man -- not Chiron the avatar of a gay man or a black man or the poor son of a drug addict. This is about his struggle, and while there are many external factors contributing to it, those factors are not paid lip service to lend the film a kind of faux import it does not need. It finds another level of grace in avoiding the obvious. It makes Chiron a human being … of America ... of Planet Earth, and it is this, as much anything else, that makes it such an irresistible, absorbing tale.
Put more succinctly by Trevante Rhodes, the actor that plays the oldest version of Chiron: “It’s a story that is so specific that it is universal.”
The personal nature comes first and foremost from the experiences of director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell McCraney (Jenkins actually adapted the screenplay from a stage play by McCraney). Both Jenkins and McCraney are from the Miami neighborhoods depicted in the film, and the broad details from McCraney are semi-autobiographical -- he is gay and his mother, like Chiron’s battled drug addiction.
Personal touches and passion projects don’t deliver greatness by their lonesome, though. Breathtaking artistry is also required. Jenkins allows his viewers to drink in each and every scene, to savor the full sensory experience on offer in every frame. There are dreamlike qualities to many of the sequences -- to the crashing and sloshing of waves as Little learns how to swim, to the dizzying, steady circular movements as Chiron is surrounded and shoved and punched by his tormentors, even to the dim lighting and humidity that permeates Black’s reunion with Kevin at a Miami diner.
Yet you never lose the plot, nor are you asked to sit through scenes or bits of dialogue that reset it. Chiron dips his face in an ice bath to soothe wounds on his face, and Black rises out of the same icebath -- older, thicker, played by a different actor, but still authoritatively authentic, still facing the very same things that Little was at the start of the film. The beepers turn in to flip phones that turn in to smart phones. These are mile markers to help you along. They are just enough to keep you from being distracted or confused by continuity.
When you get a piece of art this beautiful, that is exactly as it should be. Moonlight is a towering achievement, the kind from which you can not and should not have your attention swayed. It is one of the very best films I have seen in a long time.