To say that “Moonlight” is a movie about one single thing would be to misunderstand it fundamentally. At its crux, the film is about a boy growing up poor, Black and gay. But it’s also about drug addiction and poverty. It’s about the fragile frame that holds up collective expectations of manhood, and the ways those expectations are both challenged and reinforced by the men who don’t quite fit within their bounds. It’s about love. It’s about identity. It’s about humanity. Surprisingly, it tells all this in two hours.
The film — adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”— follows Chiron through three chapters in his life, each titled after a different name Chiron is given: Little, Chiron, Black.
Chiron is expertly played by newcomer Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders (“The Retrieval”) and Trevante Rhodes (“If Loving You Is Wrong”) in each of these chapters. Each actor captures the essence of Chrion, giving the film the illusion of a “Boyhood”-esque structure. They don’t feel like three separate actors playing one character, they feel like one man, each one growing into the next and molded from who he was before.
In “Little,” the first chapter of the story, Chiron meets Juan (Mahershala Ali, “Luke Cage”) a drug dealer who serves as a father figure and role model. He takes Chiron to the ocean and teaches him to swim, simultaneously lifting him up and letting him go. And even though he is only in the first chapter, Juan’s influence is felt in every frame.
The precision of the film is astounding. Director Barry Jenkins (“Medicine for Melancholy”) knows exactly when to keep his camera close and exactly when to pull away. Silence, noise and white noise are mixed to completely upend viewers’ expectations for and understandings of Chiron’s world. We’re both inside Chiron’s head and far away from him, knowing him only as far as he lets himself be known.
Every scene, every frame is important. I could point to any one shot and call it equally the most heartbreaking or the most uplifting moment in the film. That’s what makes “Moonlight” so difficult to write about. It knows exactly what it wants to be, and it is it. It knows exactly what it wants to say, and it says it.
On paper, many of the characters risk becoming stereotypes of this sort of narrative — the drug-addicted mother, the criminal father figure. The characters break free from those bounds not because the film intends to overturn expectations, but because it isn’t interested in them at all. Naomie Harris (“Spectre”) carves herself a heart-wrenching arc out of only a handful of scenes as Chiron’s junkie mother, Paula. Jenkins saves his characters from dehumanization because he does not make them symbols. Any feelings of universality come from the fact that what they share with their audience is humanity.
Just like “Moonlight” is not the sum of its parts, no character is the sum of their facts. Deaths and prison sentences that happen between chapters are mentioned only in passing. Part of what makes the characters so human is the fact that their lives continue even when we aren’t watching.
“Moonlight” is equal parts heartbreaking and hopeful, but not in the sense that those two factors even each other out. Instead it digs until it finds hope in the heartbreak and it stays there. Simply put, it’s a perfect movie.