Moonlight is an odd little film. Artsy without being obtuse, realist without being dull, it boasts solid performances and impressive technical execution, yet no one element is so outstanding that it overshadows the others. Similarly, the film isn’t defined by one central issue, but instead presents a multi faceted depiction of its lead character’s life. Our protagonist, Chiron lives at the intersection of multiple minority categories facing hardship and discrimination that we of the privileged majority never even consider. Technically and thematically balanced, Moonlight is as honest as it is raw, a stark reminder that life is messy, people are complex, and minority groups are not disparate things into which people can be grouped and compartmentalized, but rather Venn diagrams overlapping one another, forcing hardship onto those unfortunate enough to find themselves at the center.
Divided into three distinct acts (childhood, adolescence, and adulthood), Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a poverty stricken black boy from an inner city school coming to terms with his own homosexuality. He is meek and quiet in a culture that demands bravado and violence. Chiron walks with his eyes downcast and rarely strings more than three words together at a time. He is bullied from the very first moment we lay eyes on him.
The setting of the film invites us to expect the influence of crime and gang culture, but Chiron’s sexuality adds an additional dimension to this dynamic. As a child Chiron doesn’t know why the other boys hate him so; he only knows that he is different. How does a child grow, learn, and survive in a hostile world where masculinity and manhood is define by one’s machismo? One’s willingness to commit violence? One’s sexual conquests with women? Especially when all these things exist in opposition to one’s own identity? The answer, is seems, is only through great hardship.
Chiron’s life is further complicated by his drug addict mother, Paula, played by Naomie Harris. Emotionally abusive and prone to mood swings, Paula is more interested in finding her next high than raising her son. She is not uncaring, but her addiction rules her life. Harris doesn’t steal the show with her performance, but she is powerful in the moment, displaying the hot and cold emotions of her mercurial character with aplomb. Her’s is the sort of performance one expects from a Best Supporting Actress nomination.
The same can be said of Best Supporting Actor nominee Mahershala Ali in the role of Juan, a surrogate father figure for Chiron in the film’s first act. Juan is the local drug dealer, a man who is a clear product of the environment and culture we see on camera and a piece of foreshadowing for Chiron’s possible future. Though a criminal, he commands respect not through the threat of violence, but through an aura of wisdom gleaned from a life on the streets. He takes Chiron under his wing, giving the boy a place of refuge away from the boys at school and his mother. Ali’s performance is a subtle one. He lends his character a quiet strength and indefinable on screen presence that engenders admiration despite his station in life. Again, not a show stealing performance, but an integral part of the film nonetheless.
Also noteworthy is the character of Kevin, Chiron’s only friend. Like Chiron, Kevin is played by a different actor in each act of the film, so it is more useful to discuss how the character is written rather than portrayed. Though Chiron allows himself to be ostracized for his differences, Kevin struggles to conform. His relationship with Chiron is his one deviance, but otherwise he adopts the language and mannerisms his culture demands, playing up his own hardness and sexual exploits. The boys formative and adolescent experiences display how young men living in such an environment are put on the fast track to criminality, with wildly divergent results in their respective adulthood. The evolving relationship between these characters and how their environment inhibits their desires is the emotional heart of the film.
In terms of the film’s technical execution, the cinematography is occasionally noteworthy, but the most memorable element is the film’s eclectic score. Just as the rest of the film is balanced in its execution and themes with no one element taking precedence, the music is similarly varied. Genre jumping abounds throughout, with everything from classical, operatic pieces, to foreign language songs, to gangster rap being present. Most notable is that the music often, though not always clashes with the image being depicted onscreen, a possible reflection of how Chiron is out of place in his environment.
Indeed, this disconnect between soundtrack and image endures until the film’s third act, when Chiron has reached adulthood and come into his own. Here is where all the elements truly come together, allowing us to see how the disparate influences on his life become the sum total of his identity as an adult. He looks like Juan, his childhood father figure, he is jacked and muscular so that no one can bully him again, and he’s even learned the language of bravado that defines communication between men. Yet, when he comes in contact with Kevin as an adult, he once again becomes the quiet child we met at the film’s beginning. Chiron’s quest for absolution in the third act provides a gripping conclusion to an exemplary film.
Moonlight is a film that easily could have allowed itself to be defined by a single issue. It could have had a clear agenda, or a message with which it beats the audience over the head, but it doesn’t. It approaches its subject matter with such tactful honesty that it feels insightful rather than didactic. In a world defined by labels and categorization, Moonlight stands apart. It is not a black film. It is not a gay film. It is merely a great film.