Short Version: Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a three-act, beautiful and heartbreaking tale of a boy’s journey to manhood, with stellar performances from the entire cast, with the backdrop of a cinematic yet authentic version of Miami’s inner city.
When Barry Jenkins debuted with his tale about love amidst the tragic gentrification of San Francisco, Medicine for Melancholy (2008), he instantly made his mark as a talented young director to watch. But like every effort from a first time director, immediately following his SXSW world premiere, everyone said the same thing, “What’s Next?” Unfortunately, ‘‘What’s Next’’ was all we had for eight years. Jenkins joked in the TIFF post-premiere Q&A that we will ‘‘Never know how hard he worked over those eight years to make this film happen.’’ I don’t want Jenkins to wait another eight years for his next project, but he if produces a film half as good as Moonlight, it would be worth the wait.
Moonlight follows the story of Chiron, a quiet outsider who is tortured by his crack-addicted mother and a neighborhood of kids who all seem to know the truth of his sexuality before he does. Told in three parts over the course of 20 years, we see Chiron in elementary school played by Alex R. Hibbert, in high school played by Ashton Sanders, and finally by Trevante Rhodes as a young adult. It is a marvel how these three relatively unknown actors are able to portray the character honestly and with conviction at three very different points in his life. Mannerisms and motivations that we see at age 9 are just as clear and believable for the character in the final act.
The cast includes Mahershala Ali as Juan, a moralist drug dealer who befriends Chiron as a child and helps him through his struggles with his sexuality. Juan, like the kids who torment Chiron, knows he’s a homosexual but treats him with respect and encourages him to not be ashamed of who he is. Chiron has two strong and equality affecting women in his life. Janelle Monae plays Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend and surrogate mother, and Naomi Harris brilliantly portrays his actual mother, Paula. As Paula, Harris is brutal and powerful. She adds further complexity to Chiron’s relationship with Juan, who despite being a father figure is also the person who supplies his mother’s addiction. Harris is the only actor seen in all three sections of the film, and when I read that she filmed all her work in three days during a break from a James Bond junket, I was in disbelief. Despite struggling with the idea of playing the cliche’ drug-addicted black mother, Harris delivers the best work of her career. We should all be thankful that Jenkins was able to convince Harris to take the role, because it will likely garner Harris her first Oscar nomination.
Based on the play “In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is a film that galvanizes the cliche. The abusive drug-addicted mother, the homosexual gangster, and the moralist drug dealer are all archetypes we have seen before, but have never seen uniquely weaved together so beautifully. Through the majority of Moonlight, the audience is engrossed in a coming-of-age story set in South Central Miami, when the events of the third act suddenly shift, and we realize we’ve been watching a love story the entire time. The shift is poignant but never contrived because of the culturally accurate language and character performances throughout. It is clear that in addition to making a cinematic film that has a look and feel for each act, Jenkins was clearly focused on making the story rooted in realism. Partially inspired by Jenkin’s and McCraney’s own relationships with their mothers, Moonlight is an intimate tale that will leave you deeply affected. Moonlight, without question, is one of the best films of 2016.
Moonlight is in theaters October 21st.
By: Jacqueline Coley