By: Avram Vargas
Coming of age films come and go every year, with many similar tropes and themes flowing through them, but I have never experienced one as unique and well-crafted as Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight. Moonlight is a beautiful, tragic, and delicate story, and the high level of performance from the crew all around elevates the film in many ways. Out of the 31 films I’ve seen this year so far, Barry Jenkins’s story is the first where I cannot currently single out any major flaws, whereas I have identified at least one for every other film I’ve seen this year. This is not your typical coming of age story about a boy who falls in love with the girl down the street. This is about a boy discovering who he is through his first love, and his struggle with both himself and those around him for what he learns of himself.
Moonlight is told in a three act structure that splits into three chapters of Chiron’s life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Although it’s Chiron that is always at the heart of the story, there’s a noticeable different person in each chapter, and the film even labels him differently as “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black” respectively. Little (played by Alex Hibbert) is innocent and beginning to notice that he’s different from his peers. He’s at an age too young to fully realize that being gay is not as common, and there’s even a negative stigma towards it in many groups. In fact, although the other kids have noticed it, Chiron himself has yet to realize it himself. Through the chapters Chiron changes as his awareness towards homophobia grows. It’s tragic to see what he becomes through this undeserved hate. The armor he chooses to put on is a mask of masculinity, demonstrating not only what society accepts from him, but the expectation of him. As lost of innocence stories go, this is a clear indication of it being totally stripped from him. Although this film will be largely recognized for its homosexuality, there’s also a message to be learned from the effects of masculinity. Chiron’s experience shows who we have been trained to be, and the treatment that entails not following such code. The final act is despairing for audiences, but there remains to be suspense in the air. We want to know who is the real Chiron now, and what is it that he’s seeking. Jenkins plays with this delicately in a way for audiences to starve for indication of an answer we all want, a chance at happiness and acceptance for a boy we watched grow up.
As stated earlier, the cast and crew really aimed for their best on this film. Naomie Harris brings a career best in her portrayal as Chiron’s mother. She’s a struggling mother, and her vicious, selfish addictions only bring more torment to Chiron’s life. Since the film goes through three different stages of his life, we do not get a central actor to thank for the on-screen creation of Chiron, but Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes shine in particular scenes with the little time they’re given. The last performance I found outstanding comes from Mahershala Ali’s Juan, the local drug dealer who brings an unexpected nurturing side to Chiron’s life. My favorite scene in particular with him is from the last scene we see from him in the film, a heartbreaking moment that leaves you wanting more from Mahershala.
Barry Jenkins’s name is sure to be a fast growing one within the industry, akin to Damien Chazelle’s boom in recognition over the last two years. There’s a total sense of awareness for the film and the direction he means to tell the story. The scenes do not simply roll out, there’s precise detail to nearly each one; cameras pan around in focus for suspense when needed, emotions are created in hallucination-like moments, and the film utilizes shades of blue and purple to follow the course of the story. The blue motifs are noticeable, and I imagine there will be discussions on the true intention of them. In my opinion, moments of blue shades in the film represent Chiron accepting and being himself, and the shades in between purple and black are his mask from his true, blue self. Keep an eye out for these colors if you watch the film, it’s a nice consistent visual motif to analyze. Whenever there’s a shade of blue it acts as an arrow to point to Chiron who he is. This is no doubt without aid from James Laxton’s stunning cinematography. The color grading shifts between the same hues of blue and purple in align with Chiron’s current self -acceptance. It’s obvious how much discussion was held between Laxton and Jenkins on figuring out this film visually, and the ending result is almost 2 hours of constant magical imagery. The two know how to create moments of intimacy with Chiron that closes you off to his feelings.
This is an important film to watch, and one that I believe the LGBTQ+ and black communities will come to appreciate especially. There’s lessons to be learned in acceptance and the effects of masculinity’s glorification. And if this isn’t enough for you to watch, enjoy a love story that’s both endearing and tragic in its poetic cinematic form. This is a film for many eyes to enjoy on many different levels. You may need to try a bit harder finding this film than your average movie release, but it’s well worth the dedication.
Moonlight is currently open in select theaters and will receive a nationwide release on November 4th, 2016.