By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
“At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be. And let nobody make that decision.” Although that advice (as delivered by one of the characters in Moonlight) seems simple and true enough, life has a way of making this path a challenge. This is especially true for impoverished African-Americans. Of course there have been plenty of films about the trials and tribulations of black youth, but Moonlight might be the first to tackle the subject from a completely different perspective. If life is already arduous for poor African-American youth, imagine the troubles faced by a black male with an identity crisis, who feels completely out of place in his world.
Based on a story by Tarrell Alvin McCraney, and written and directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight takes its audience through the life of Chiron, a quiet, shy and sensitive African-American who, as a child, doesn’t really fit in with the more aggressive and athletic boys in his poor Miami neighborhood. Often bullied and picked-on by the neighborhood kids, Chiron’s only friends are his buddy Kevin, the neighborhood crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), and Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). As Chiron grows up, he faces more challenges in life as the bullying grows more violent, and the crack habit of his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) worsens. As he matures in his teen years, he grows even more conflicted and confused about his feelings and his place in the world.
If Barry Jenkins hasn’t made the best film of the year, he has, at least, made the most important, and most relevant one. He has also made one of the more beautifully shot and skillfully edited films of the year. Working with cinematographer James Laxton proves to be an excellent choice for capturing the perfect look and tone of Chiron’s perspective of the world–the chaos, the longing, the melancholy and heartbreak. The images on the screen perfectly match the superb writing and development of the story and characters. The deliberate pacing perfectly matches the guarded personality of its protagonist. For this protagonist, Jenkins and casting director Yesi Ramirez chose three wonderful young actors to portray Chiron in the three stages of life shown in the film.
As “Little,” the pre-pubescent child version of Chiron, Alex R. Hibbert is an absolute natural, and plants the seed from which the other Chiron actors can grow and develop. Talented teen actor Ashton Sanders portrays Chiron during high school and takes the character’s vulnerability to a higher level as life grows more difficult and complicated for him. Trevante Rhodes, as the adult Chiron, who goes by “Black,” presents a more hardened side of the character, but also manages to show the character’s sensitivity with brilliant subtlety and restraint. The superb performances by supporting cast members Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, and Naomi Harris definitely should be lauded as well. In addition to the three talents who portray Chiron, gifted actors Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome, and Jaden Piner portray Chiron’s friend Kevin in the three chapters in the film.
Given the similarities to the basic of premise of presenting the life of a boy, the comparisons to Boyhood are nearly unavoidable. Still, this movie is excellent in its own right and has its own take and message about the world, presented with its own unique style. As many films and stories that exist about life in “the hood,” this one offers a refreshing perspective and gives the real people, similar to Chiron, a much-needed voice in cinema.