Growing up is hard enough. Figuring out who you are, figuring out the balance between what’s deep and held fast in your soul and what you’re willing to share with the world, is a difficult endeavor under the best of circumstances. Coupling that with the difficulties of living in a household of addiction, of a sexual preference that earns you added scorn, turns an already fraught journey into a cruel and unforgiving one.
Despite the harshness of these troubles, Moonlight finds the beauty forged within that crucible, the kindnesses large and small and the transcendent moments and connections, that give a sweet, put upon young boy something to hold onto as he becomes a man. Despite the aesthetic pleasures of Moonlight’s gorgeously-shot scenes, it is, at times, an ugly, dispiriting film, but ultimately a life-affirming one. It centers on the unique challenges of its protagonist, struggling to define himself, and finding his way among the pitfalls and small graces of growing up.
It is a lovely, arguably superior, companion piece to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, another coming of age tale that is told in pieces with a reserved, but introspective bent. Certainly, the circumstances of Moonlight’s Chiron and Boyhood’s Mason are markedly different. What’s more, Moonlight does not share Boyhood’s ambitious ten-year production schedule, instead relying a trio very talented actors who manage to turn three separate performances into one remarkably unified character. But both gain strength and meaning from the contrast of who the young men at the center of these films were and are at various points in their development, and how the two movies explore what lessons, ideas, and modes of being remain or recur later in life, and what falls by the wayside.
It is a film that is both strikingly specific but also universal. Writers Barry Jenkins (who also directed the film) and Tarell McCraney do well to explore the particular hardships of being stuck between a mother who labors under an addiction and doesn’t know how to deal with her son’s differences on the one hand, and a surrogate father on the other, who accepts those differences, guiding Chiron and giving him the tools to survive, but who also feeds his mother’s dependency. In the same way, Moonlight succeeds in its focus on Chiron’s fraught attraction to his best friend, Kevin, bound up with all the fears and insecurities of teenage affection, with the added challenges of homosexuality and race that deepen the sense of unsteadiness, self-doubt, and betrayal that come with such steps into adulthood. There is a specificity to these threads, a depth and particularity to Chiron’s uniquely hazardous journey through uncharted waters.
And yet, Moonlight is rooted in such recognizable emotions and motivations that the film transcends Chiron’s individual story at the same time it embraces it. The film explores the perilous effort to define yourself – in relation to some things, in opposition to others, and in the shadow of both blessings and pain. It commits to this project from the misfit kid who doesn’t know where he belongs, to the troubled teenager who finds comforts but has to make difficult choices, to the adult who remakes himself in a loved one’s image. That struggle is an eternal one, experienced by everyone, even as it’s given poignant life in one young man’s story.
But the most universal, heartening, and at times heartbreaking aspect of Moonlight is how it is a love story. As much as the core of the film is about Chiron’s development — the man he would become and the boy he was to get there — the heart of the movie is in the relationship between Chiron and Kevin. In their gentle companionship as children, in their shared vulnerabilities and sense of release in adolescence, in their cautious but tender reunion as adults, Moonlight depicts one of the most complicated, believable, and compelling love stories committed to celluloid in years. There is a truth in the pair’s first few tentative steps, in the hesitant way their romance moves forward and crumbles in turn, and the baggage and lives lived that hang in the background as it’s rebuilt, giving the relationship an unmatched force.
The shape of that love story is given form by the incredible art direction, editing, and cinematography of the film. At a time when the status of the pair’s relationship is exceedingly uncertain, Moonlight lingers on the images of Kevin lovingly preparing a meal for Chiron. The warmth of the process, the tactile effort of it, become the focus of the camera in a way that tells the audience everything about how Kevin feels about Chiron without anyone needing to say it. Early in the film, the camera swirls around the participants in a drug deal, communicating the tumult of this corner of Miami and the way one man is at the center of the orbit. And by the same token, the film’s use of color is outstanding, with crisp blues that signify the choices confronted by Chiron, as outlined by the man who takes him under his wing, which director of photography James Laxton often isolates amid white space or primary colors. There’s a warm naturalism to how the film is shot, where every hue pops and a gentle glow permeates moments harsh and beautiful.
But all that beauty is in service of what is, unassumingly, a tremendous ensemble film. As Moonlight passes through the years, only Naomie Harris (who gives an incredible performance as Chiron’s mother Paula) appears in all three segments. And despite their comparatively brief appearances, Janelle Monáe and especially Mahershala Ali make big impressions as the early lights in Chiron’s life. But with that lack of continuity, it falls to the tripartite collection of actors who portray Chiron and Kevin at different points in their lives to carry the whole, and each rises to the occasion. There is a unity to these two young men from youth to adulthood, a cohesiveness to their struggles and their characters even as each changes dramatically, that speaks to the overwhelming talents of the actors young and old, and the quality of the writing that supports them.
Moonlight is simply a superlative film, one whose merit and impact are hard to capture with the clumsy implements of the written word. It is wide in scope, spanning years and grazing eternal truths, but also succinct and focused on the compelling story of Chiron and committed to providing a glimpse of his inner life. It shows harrowing events in gorgeous ways and tender moments with artistic care. It is a film about who we are, and who we choose to be, that finds power and beauty in the spaces in between.