The Middleburg Film Festival offered some strong contenders in the race for awards, and the buzz is just starting to build with movie lovers who make sure to see the very best releases this time of year. MOONLIGHT, in theaters this weekend, is one of the best, and should be on the list for all awards watchers to see. The story is about a young black man’s rise from childhood in a rough neighborhood in Miami, and his struggle for connection and belonging. It stars three actors that portray the lead’s life from around eight years of age to adulthood, with writer/director Barry Jenkins at the helm. It is a film of exquisite visual poetry and emotional authenticity.
The experience of the central character is broken up into three ages. With each age, he is called something different, according to how he exists in his world and how others see him. “Little” lives with his crack-addled mother, Paula. Naomie Harris plays her with heartbreaking precision. The suggestion is that Little is small-boned and thin because she’s been on drugs since before he was born. We see Little interact with her as well as with street drug hustler Juan (Nick Cage’s Mahershala Ali), who takes him under his wing, caring for him and coming to think of him as family. This is in part, it would appear, because he is Paula’s drug dealer. He feels responsible for Little. Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) becomes as much a mother-figure for Little as Paula should be. These players are represented as multidimensional, and we get to see just enough of the complexity of their lives to get connected to each of them, regardless of their flaws.
As a teenager, we are introduced to Chiron, Little’s real name. We see him as an outsider at school and caring for a mother who is still incapable of caring for him or herself. He also finds both solace and pain with childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), with whom he briefly explores his sexuality. The last third of the film is dedicated to the adult version of Chiron. Though there is good flow through each part of his life story, this where the audience will be entirely won over, He is now dubbed “Black”, the nickname Kevin had given him as a child. We discover how Black has learned to deal with the world, the face he puts out to it, and whether he can find peace in authenticity is finally revealed. Kevin once again figured prominently, now played as an adult by Andre Holland of The Knick.
All the actors are exceptional in their roles. Naomie Harris continues to prove herself as an actress who can play a wide diversity of women. Barry Jenkins’s screenplay and direction allows room for the entire cast to embody their roles and interact in very real ways, making them believable and getting the audience fully behind them. Anyone trying to find their place with family and friends will be able to relate to those onscreen, even if some of them are hard to watch. From beginning to end, the actors and their stories have a powerful, magnetic pull on us as viewers.
What makes MOONLIGHT so exceptional is the way it follows the lead character, without judgement, with such subtlety and truth. His life, from his perspective, is just his life. We, the audience, are just walking through it with him. Although there have been comparisons to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN, the sexual identity of this character is only a part of this story. One of the messages of MOONLIGHT is, whatever you see when you see someone, or hear them described, is always only part of the story.
One question about identity posed here is whether there is ever one aspect of experience or orientation that defines us. The lead may be called Little, Chiron, and Black, depending on the time, but who he becomes in the course of the film is all three, none of the three, and something else, all at once. He is many complicated experiences, lessons, and desires, coalescing into something in a unique and holistic way. He is not a cliche, and certainly not one defining name; Black. Gay. Dealer. Caretaker. He is someone looking for more, someone repeatedly choosing between living in hope and resignation. It is a singular feat Jenkins is able to create cinema with such quiet dignity featuring a gay man of color and have it be about, and accepted as, so much more. Let’s hope the audience for the deserving MOONLIGHT will be wide enough to allow this lovely movie to shine.