Anyone who’s felt even a little bit like an outsider should have no trouble connecting with Moonlight. This is an intimate and profound coming-of-age story of an introverted African-American boy growing up in a poor neighborhood in Miami, as he struggles with his sexuality and what it means to be a man. It’s about a sensitive boy trying to find his place in a hostile world, and in that it feels both deeply personal and universal.
Our protagonist is Chiron, and the film is broken into three chapters that together span roughly 20 years in his life. We first meet him as a ten-year-old with frightened eyes, living with his crack addict mother (an excellent Naomie Harris). Bullied at school and taunted as a “faggot”, a word he doesn’t even understand, he’s taken in by a man, a local drug dealer ironically (Mahershala Ali), who becomes something of a surrogate father to him.
When we catch up with Chiron again, he’s a skinny teenager, but little else has changed. His mother is still drugged out permanently, and he still attracts bullies. He’s also grappling with desires that he doesn’t quite know how to act on.
Years later, virtually unrecognizable under all the muscle and the gold grill in his mouth, he’s now a hardened drug dealer himself, working the same streets he once seemed destined to escape.
Director Barry Jenkins casts a different actor to play Chiron at each respective stage, and it’s remarkable how seamlessly their performances seem to create a unified portrait of a man desperately seeking happiness and trying to find his place and identity in the world. A special mention here for Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron, who seems to speak volumes by staying mostly silent.
The film touches upon themes of race, sexuality, and isolation, but in ways rarely depicted on screen. This is a deeply moving character study of a young man who doesn’t quite know who he is, a man struggling to comprehend his first sexual experience, a man who ultimately fails in building a wall around his heart.
Frankly Moonlight is the kind of film one is drawn to ‘feel’ rather than merely ‘watch’. It is experiential as much as it is engaging, complemented by an evocative music score and exquisite photography. By the end, you’ll be holding back tears.
I’m going with four out of five.
Rating: 4 / 5
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