So I finally got around to seeing Moonlight this weekend. Though not as heavily hyped as La La Land (which I’ve still not managed to see), there’s always the risk of filmic disappointment when your expectations have been raised to level that can never realistically be met. But I’m pleased to report that Moonlight just about countered this, and lived up to the praise I’ve heard about it.
The film follows Chiron through three key stages in his life: as a child discovering a potential saviour in his otherwise bleak life; as a teenager grappling with his sexuality; and as a man, at least superficially toughened up by his life a street dealer.
In act one, as a young black boy in America, Chiron already has it hard, but a chaotic, drug-addicted mother, and the unrelenting bullying of his peers doesn’t help. But a chance encounter with unexpectedly altruistic drug dealer Juan, and his girlfriend Theresa, provide a small oasis of calm. A scene where he is taught to swim by Juan has been much commented on, and this is indeed one of the most beautiful and powerful parts of the film. It also sets up the ocean-side in Miami as the location for most of the significant moments in Chiron’s life.
An older, but still victimised, Chiron takes centre stage in act two. Director, Barry Jenkins, subtlety builds up the tension to a crucial moment of betrayal and violence that puts Chiron on a new path that is fully revealed in the final act. Here we see a newly formed and virtually unrecognisable adult. Almost completely replicating the style of Juan, Chiron is now also controlling a gang of street dealers with all its inherent risks and rewards. An opportunity to reconnect with Kevin, who was his first and possibly only love, brings him back to Miami. This part of the film felt a little over-extended to me, but the ambiguity of Chiron and Kevin’s relationship is explored slowly over this time with a touchingly sweet conclusion.
Moonlight has some amazing performances, particularly from the younger cast members and Mahershala Ali as Juan. This is very much a film with many shades, where the kindest people also deal crack, protective mothers shove their kids out into the night, and a best friend concedes to peer pressure to become an abuser. Barry Jenkins, as both director and co-writer (with Tarell Alvin McCraney) does a fantastic job in capturing these ambiguities and subtleties. Moonlight also portrays a side of America you don’t often see- the projects in Miami are depicted in pastel hues and brilliant sunshine, but without hiding the inherent poverty and threats of violence which abound.
It’s always hard to live up to a set of rave reviews and (eventual) Oscar win, but this film explores masculinity, blackness, and sexuality in 21st century America in a genuinely moving but quietly emotional way that is pretty rare these days.