The best thing films do is give audience an emotional experience they would never get in their own lives.
I’ve been fortunate to not live in the areas where Moonlight’s protagonist Chiron grew up. I certainly wouldn’t understand Chiron’s experiences. Moonlight and director Barry Jenkins made Chiron’s life seemfamiliar to me. It also made me realize that, no matter what our backgrounds are, we’re all searching for the same thing.
Moonlight is told in a Kubrickian three act structure with different actors playing the same characters at different stages of their lives. When we first meet Chiron, he is a child called Little and is played by Alex Hibbert. Little barely speaks and the only thing he fears more than bullies is his crack addicted mother Paula (Naomi Harris). The only people who seem to care about him are Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (singer Janelle Monae). Juan finds Little hiding in a crack house from bullies and takes him under his wing. One of the most emotionally devastating moments in this emotionally devastating film sees Juan confront Paula over her drug use – only for Little to later ask Juan if he’s a dealer. Juan can barely hold back tears as he answers in the affirmative.
Moonlight still would be one of the best films of the year had it followed the story of Little for its entire run time. In this era when more people seem to be turning away from urban slums as a relic of a bygone era, these scenes reminded me that there are still people living these lives. It was also told in a way that made Little’s story seem real to everyone in the audience. The cinematography throughout the film, at times, seems to have been inspired by GoPro videos. It makes the film look like a documentary, which makes the emotional impact much stronger.
What’s most amazing is that the people society has abandoned in our reality are still determined to do good. Juan recognizes the damage he’s inflicting on his community and views Little as a way to atone. But Little is just as much a victim of Juan as anyone else who’s become addicted to the drugs he sells. Juan, despite his desire be a father to Little, is ultimately going to cause damage to the people he knows. I hope Ali is nominated for an Oscar – his tortured performance of a man doing wrong when he wants to do right fits the bill.
The first act also sets up the new story Little’s adolescence. The second act, titled “Chiron,” deals with Chiron (Ashton Sanders) as he comes to terms with some of the questions he had as a child. Chiron is still being relentlessly bullies and his mother has become a more desperate drug addict, badgering her son for money. Chiron also realizes that he is gay as he experiments on the beach with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).
That sexual experimentation scene is one of the standout scenes of Moonlight. In an age where gay marriage is legal, Moonlight reminds audiences that there are still large segments of our culture that finds this wrong. Chiron is unable to process his actions, and feels a need to apologize after it’s done. Chiron is also the target of vicious bullying by people who merely suspect that Chiron is gay.
The third act is reminiscent of Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre, as Chiron becomes “Black” (and now played by Trevante Rhodes) and lives the same sort of life Juan did. He reconnects with Kevin (Andre Holland), and they have dinner at the Miami restaurant Kevin works at together. They talk about how neither of them expected to end up where they are and how they both have deep regrets over their lives.
This last act is glacially paced. We’re watching two people talk in real time. But I can’t imagine a way that the story could change. I cared about the characters and wanted to see how they would react to each other. I also understood why they arrived at the emotional point that they did. Compare these two to, say, watching Tony Stark and Steve Rogers fight for the bazillionth time and you’ll see what’s missing from most big budgeted tent poles these days. I had a reason to care about Chiron and Kevin.
Moonlight is one of the most satisfying films of 2016. It’s a wonderful emotional journey that I could not have another way. Some may dislike how slow the film is, but I don’t think that’s the filmmakers fault. I wish that more films were as engaging as Moonlight. And director Barry Jenkins shows how easy it can be. All you need are characters that can draw you into their world.