Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Barry Jenkins
Stars: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Janelle Monae, Jharrel Jerome, Andre Holland.
This moving coming of age story is a powerful portrait of a poor gay African American boy growing up in on the mean streets of a crime ridden neighbourhood of Miami and grappling with his sexuality. The film is set to rewrite some records in Hollywood. In particular, it breaks away from the usual stereotypical portraits and depiction of the experiences of black youth in contemporary America. The sensitive and perceptive film is about the experiences that shape us and explores rich themes of masculinity, sexuality, shame, secrecy, family, trust, drug abuse, bullying, race and prejudice.
Moonlight itself is based on an unproduced semi-autobiographical play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, which was written by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who was a member of Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company. It also holds some deeply personal resonance for director Barry Jenkins, who grew up in the same tough crime infested neighbourhood as McCraney and whose mother struggled with her addiction to crack cocaine. This is Jenkins’ first film since the low budget indie feature Medicine For Melancholy nearly a decade earlier, and he handles the material in understated fashion.
The central character here is Chiron, a shy and introverted boy, and it follows him through the pivotal stages of his development, from childhood to young adulthood. His story is universal and will resonate strongly with audiences. But unlike the ambitious Boyhood, which followed the one actor across twelve years and which perfectly illustrated the subtle changes in his appearance and personality, here Chiron is played by a different actor at each different stage which gives us more of an impressionistic portrait. But we still get a sense of him as a whole person.
We first meet Chiron as an eight-year old running across a decrepit housing estate trying to escape from the school yard bullies who are chasing him. The shy and introverted Chiron is small in stature and says very little. He is bullied at school because he is perceived as being “different”. His unstable and emotionally fragile mother Paula (Naomie Harris, from the recent Bond films) is a drug addict who often neglects the boy while in pursuit of her next desperate fix. Chiron finds an unexpected father figure in Juan (Mahershala Ali, from House Of Cards, Free State Of Jones, etc) a local drug dealer who takes him under his protective wing and shows the boy kindness and gives him stability and teaches him some important life lessons.
As a gawky teenager Chiron finds a friend in the form of Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who is sympathetic and understands him. He is attracted to him, and the relationship that slowly forms between the two adolescents, experimenting with their own sexuality, forms the emotional crux of the drama. But in the brutal environment of middle school, even Kevin is pressured into physically assaulting Chiron to prove his manhood. The aftermath of that event drives them apart for over a decade and Chiron finds it hard to trust people or form a meaningful relationship.
As an adult Chiron is still a fairly lonely figure. Kevin (now played by Andre Holland)reaches out to Chiron to try and rekindle their adolescent friendship and maybe take their relationship to the next level. They meet in the café that Kevin runs, and he cooks him a meal while they talk. These scenes are filled with a palpable sexual tension and a sense of intimacy, and offer a sort of hope.
The film unfolds largely as a triptych in which we watch Chiron at three different stages of his life. As a naïve and scared eight-year old he is played by twelve-year old Alex Hibbert, who makes his film debut here. Hibbert is particularly strong, and effectively captures his shyness, his curiosity and his vulnerability and confusion as he begins to sense that he may be gay. Hibbert also grew up in the same neighbourhood as McCraney, so he has an insight into Chiron’s experiences. As a teenager he is played with lanky grace by Ashton Sanders (Straight Outta Compton, etc), while the adult Chiron is played by Trevante Rhodes (Westworld, etc). The actors don’t share much of a physical resemblance, which does create a bit of a disconnect between the three chapters.
Harris normally plays strong and decent women and is largely cast against type here, giving a strong performance as Chiron’s mother, but she elicits a measure of sympathy from the audience. She is the only cast member to appear in all three chapters. Ali has a strong and yet sympathetic screen presence as the strangely gentle and moral drug dealer who becomes a father figure for Chiron.
80% of the film was shot on location in that same neighbourhood, which lends authenticity to the settings. James Laxton’s beautiful cinematography, which is often bathed in shades of blue, brings a surreal quality to the material. He captures the environment superbly, and his use of handheld cameras is effective in the opening scene, which gives us some views of the blighted neighbourhood.