By Darin Skaggs
If there is any theme I could find in the movie year of 2016, it is that life is beautiful even when faced with tremendous tragedy. With movies like Manchester By the Sea, American Honey and Kubo and the Two Strings have characters that find themselves at the lowest of lows. Despite that they find moments of happiness and beauty that brings some hope in all the hopelessness. Another movie to add to that list is the wonderful Barry Jenkins film, Moonlight.
The film is about Chiron, a young man who goes through life struggling with friendship, his sexual orientation and parental issues. It is told in three chapters all about ten years apart with three different actors; one at age eight or nine (Alex Hibbert), sixteen or seventeen (Ashton Sanders) and mid-twenties (Trevante Rhodes). In the first part, we meet Jaun (Mahershala Ali) who becomes a father figure to him. We meet his mother (Naomie Harris) who is probably prostituting herself for drug money. We also meet Kevin, who seems to be the only person who wants to be his friend. This shapes the other two acts of the film to create the character of Chiron.
The three performances are all equally incredible. Honestly, I do not have a favorite. They all do so well and have similar ways they talk and even their stance is alike. Barry Jenkins really had a hold on getting the actors to act the same and seem like the same person. Jenkins also wrote this screenplay which helps. There is a point in the last act where you realize that Chiron is more confident and sure of who he is, but when he meets up with an old friend he goes back to his old ways, acting shy and almost shutting down. It is all incredible acting wise, Harris does well, she plays the mother in all three acts and really makes the character her own. Ali is awesome in gaining our trust nearly immediately despite being a drug dealer. The table scene is powerful as young Chiron has many revelations about his life, Juan and himself. Janelle Monae plays Teresa, who is Juan’s significant other, who always has Chiron’s back and she is great as well.
The movie is sort of an issue movie hidden in a romantic drama. In the second act, Chiron and his friend Kevin have a romantic encounter. Chiron is mocked for acting gay for most of the first half and a little after the encounter, but he does not know what his sexual orientation is, possible not even by the end of the movie. The fact that he is bullied and mocked makes him just want to hide, but clearly has no interest in girls. All he has is his terrible mom and only trust Teresa because Juan does. It is subtle though, even though everyone is yelling at him that he is gay in the second act it is not the only thing about him. It does not define him. In fact he is a character that has no idea what defines him. The chapters are named after nicknames that other people have given him. “Little” is the first chapter, which he is called because he is shorter, his second chapter is “Chiron” the name given to him by his mom. He does not like his mom and in this chapter likes himself the least so that makes sense. “Black” is the third chapter which Kevin calls him his whole life and that is the one where he admits that Kevin was one of the most important people in his life.
The film is quite sad throughout. The first two chapters and the beginning of the third almost make you pity Chiron. You are scared most of the movie that something bad is going to happen. The score by Nicholas Britell is haunting and gives off a sense of dread. Even James Laxton’s cinematography fills you with fear for our characters. The movie probably benefits from a second viewing. The score might mean something else later on in life, like Chiron is experiencing. Honestly, this is a near perfect film that I was so happy to see, so go see it if you haven’t.