By Gillian McIntosh
“Moonlight” is a dramatic film that explores the issues of identity in an eloquent and heart breaking way. Its critics are calling Berry Jenkins’ film “Moonlight” one of the essential American films. The film won three Oscar’s for “Best Motion Picture of the Year,” “Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role” and “Best Adapted Screenplay.”
The film’s plot explores and develops its characters, while also dealing with identity, sexuality, family and masculinity. The movie never feels like it is preaching of moralizing; it simply captures deep, complex themes. It is clear that the director stays focused on each individual aspect of the movie in order to capture the scenes most accurately.
The protagonist of “Moonlight” represents the conflicted and fluid masculinity of young African-American men in the United States today. The movie is separated into three chapters – “Little,” “Chiron” and “Black.” These are the three names used to refer to the single character that the film follows through adolescence to adulthood. The boy turns into a man who is continually struggling to figure out his place in the world, which is articulated through three separate actors.
The film starts with Chiron as a boy who is given the nickname “Little,” played by Alex R. Hilbert. The skinny kid is being pursued by a group of bullies, and he ducks into a condemned building to escape. Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, follows him into the building and the two stare at each other. Inside this building that likely is in its condition due to riots, the two mirror each other; one looking into his past, and one looking into his future. Juan takes the boy home to feed and nourish him where we are introduced to Juan’s partner Teresa, played by Janelle Monet. Little used this paring as his makeshift family. His dad is gone and his mother is a drug-addict. Juan becomes something like a father figure. He sees something good and innocent in Chiron and wants to build him up, even as he provides the product that is ruining his home life.
The film jumps to Chiron as a teenager, who is dealing with more intense bullying and questions about sexuality. Chiron, now played by Ashton Sanders, struggles to find himself amidst a time where everyone claims to be sleeping around and violence takes precedence over compassion. It takes kindness from his friend Kevin, played by Jharrel Jerome, to bring him comfort.
In the last chapter, we meet Chiron as a young adult, played by Trevante Rhodes. Kevin, now played by Andre Holland, reaches out to a very different Chiron who is now living in Atlanta where his mom is in rehab. The themes of the movie come together in an emotionally resonant way, without monologues or melodrama.
“Moonlight” is a coming-of-age story about a boy often overlooked by society. The trio of performances perfectly coincide and never falter in that regard. Jenkins’ work with his ensemble creates consistency from chapter to chapter, even as the cast changes as it does. “Moonlight” is a film about faces. Chiron is a young, black, gay, poor and largely friendless character that feels like he could literally vanish from being so unseen. This film is representative of the struggles of many young African-Americans.