Often times, the best stories are the ones that don’t get told. And to a point, it seems unthinkable that there are still experiences and perspectives of life, as everyday as they may seem, that Hollywood has yet to mine. As attitudes about the LGBT community have continually shifted toward understanding and acceptance, more stories regarding a coming of age or the history of homosexuality’s place in society have given a fresh and enlightening take on finding one’s place in the world and being comfortable with one’s own identity. But while that progression has been beautiful to witness, the problem is that most of those narratives have come from a predominantly white perspective.
Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight features McCraney’s source material split into three chapters, documenting the growth and challenges faced by Chiron as he grapples with his drug-addicted mother, the pressure to perform traditional masculinity and his own sexual identity. Appropriately, the film’s tagline atop the one-sheet reads, “This is the story of a lifetime.” Not only is that on the nose considering the focus of the narrative, but also it’s taken more than a lifetime to see this sort of story on film, and damn was Moonlight a great start.
In these three chapters, we see Chiron through three different phases of his life: as a young boy (Alex Hibbert), a high school teenager (Ashton Sanders) and a grown man on his own (Trevante Rhodes). This feels like an interesting choice given the conventions of coming-of-age dramas that are meant and expected to depict slow, but gradual growth from the time the protagonist first enters the frame. By chopping up the story and skipping forward in Chiron’s life, it gives the impression that his progression from boyhood innocence is perpetually stunted, as if we are forced to continue recognizing him as a quiet little boy.
As he ages, the difficulties he faces daily, and therefore the film’s subject matter, grow in intensity, and James Laxton’s cinematography is always there to make you feel uncomfortable. Utilizing numerous long takes and close-ups, Jenkins’s direction provides an intimate feel that further allows us to sympathize with Chiron. But still, the way the camera moves and follows characters makes his direction feel simultaneously detached, as if the camera is meant to be constantly aware of its own presence. It may make what happens on screen that much more discomforting, but its commitment to uncompromising beauty in a naturalistic view keeps the audience hypnotized.
In a sense, that humanist choice allows the actors to give more authentic performances rather than the opposite being the case. And considering most of the performers change from chapter to chapter – Naomie Harris’s portrayal of Paula being one of the only constants – it’s truly impressive how each of the ensemble is able to leave their own stamp on the story with their given material. Harris gives the performance of her life as Chiron’s mom, and though Mahershala Ali’s Juan is given a limited amount of screen time, he absolutely shines in a role that requires the nuance of male role model stability and conflicted masculinity.
And yes, it’s true that previous coming of age films dealing with sexual identity have explored the same themes that Jenkins puts under the microscope here, but rarely have they been touched upon in this way. Chiron’s learning of his homosexuality and coming to terms with it is a major aspect of the narrative, but more than that, Moonlight is a film about the destructiveness of traditional gender norms with an added emphasis on the effects of street life in a predominantly working class neighborhood, breeding toughness and the expectation of a hardened exterior in young boys as a means of survival and proving one’s worth. These themes especially pop in this particular film’s script thanks to an eye-opening African-American perspective and its not feeling bound by genre constraints, and the resulting transparency is heartbreaking, though fulfilling.
Moonlight is hard viewing, but it’s rewarding viewing. It ends rather ambiguously, but that uncertainty is hopeful. Though that sounds disenchanting, it’s a poetic conclusion to a lifetime – there’s that word again – where hardships were a certainty. And how appropriate it is that the film should find such a harmonious ending when it finds poeticism in everything it depicts, from the flawed characters to the sounds of silence. Like its main subject of study, Moonlight speaks the loudest when it speaks the least, and it’s in those passages when it becomes the unstoppable force a certain Academy hopefully recognizes it to be.