Moonlight may still face an uncertain release date in Singapore, but in the United States, Hillary Tan managed to catch the coming-of-age film about a black gay man dealing with growing up and adulthood. He writes this movie review for Popspoken.
In Moonlight, the second full-length feature from director Barry Jenkins, tells the story of Chiron, an African American struggling with his sexuality. Jenkins shows us three stages of Chiron’s life, as a young child, as a teenager, and as an adult. Or, as the title cards before each section tells us, “Little”, “Chiron”, and “Black”, the different names he is known by throughout the movie.
Working from an unproduced stage play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, based on his adolescent experience, Jenkins eschews the glamourous beach views of Miami, bringing us into the project housing area for an intimate exploration of bullying and repression, against a backdrop of poverty and drug abuse.
Aided by James Laxton’s sublime, poetic cinematography, and the exquisitely wrenching score by Nicholas Britell, Jenkins creates a movie centered around a single character, crafting a piece of art laser focused on its main character, yet universal in its emotions and themes.
“Who is you, Chiron?”
Towards the end of the first section, young Chiron, played by Alex Hibbert, has a conversation with Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, a drug dealer who slowly becomes Chiron’s first real father. “What’s a faggot?” the single, crushing question Chiron asks. Juan throws it off as just a regular insult, but his eyes betray the heart-breaking truth. His sexuality will cause him pain and torment, maybe for the rest of his life.
All the bullying he’s endured up until now has been at the hands of other children because of his small stature. These kids do not fully understand yet. What will happen once they find out? What will happen when Chiron finds the real answer to “What’s a faggot?” As his questioning begins, so will the real bullying.
Once the movie introduces Chiron’s sexuality as a question inside him, it becomes the main driving force within Chiron, even as repression from the society around him leads him to passivity. His first sexual experience isn’t initiated by him, but by childhood friend Kevin, played here as a teenager by Jharell Jerome.
As Kevin and Chiron, played here by Ashton Sanders, bathed in ethereal blue light on a beach, their attraction flows from distant to physical. Jenkins, to his immense credit, never makes the sexual act indulgent. Instead of showing action, he focuses on details. Every gasp, every kiss, every clenched fist in the portrayed as relief from repression. For the first time, Chiron knows who he is.
The Middle of the World
Moonlight pulls off an extremely challenging task. In every scene, Chiron’s internal questioning feels universal. The movie never needs to explain the unique struggle of defining sexuality for a wider audience. It simply makes you feel the struggle by constantly conflating Chiron’s questioning with a search for identity.
By making this choice, every act of bullying that Chiron experiences is now a setback to discovering his fundamental identity. In many other movies, making a character’s sexuality a key characteristic is done for humour, or to offer empty platitudes to the idea of representation. Moonlight feels universal because being gay isn’t Chiron’s characteristic. It is his identity.
If there was one scene that fully captured what Moonlight feels like, it would be the one near the start of the movie. Even in a movie with incredible scenes of pure humanity, when one remembers Moonlight, it could only be that scene, Juan teaching Chiron to swim. The camera never shows us the full expanse of the sea for a single moment, instead tightly fastened to the characters in it. The restraint brings us into Chiron’s world for a rare moment of peace in the middle of conflict.
A boy, lost, struggling to find himself in a raging world. Nothing matters more than his happiness. This is Moonlight.