Very rarely do I come out of a theater and think, “Wow, that movie is important,” and Moonlight definitely falls into that category. The plot concerns a young black boy named Chiron coming to terms with his own sexuality in a low income part of Miami, through three character defining chapters in his life.
While on the surface I could easily say that is an accurate description, but writer/director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) digs far deeper, and into a far more universal theme of identity. This is a film that could easily have gone into gritty territory, but Jenkins actually paints a beautiful and colorful tapestry even when dealing with darker material, giving us a world that feels very real and very much like our own.
Moonlight touches on poverty, bullying, crime, drugs, race, and sexuality without any of them dominating the thematic narrative. They are just complex forces that try to shape the identity of the main character, as he struggles against them. Even if you can’t relate with the specifics of what Chiron is going through, the general journey the character goes on is something everyone grapples with.
Jenkins has put together a formidable cast with Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes all playing the main character Chiron as a boy, teenager, and adult in each of the three chapters. The three actors paint the portrait of a character who is more than the sum of his parts. For most of the film, the character rarely speaks — yet I would point to him as an example of a well rounded, three-dimensional character, which is rarely seen on the big screen. Even at his worst, Chiron feels completely authentic and human.
A more traditional screenplay would have taken this film to a radically different place, but Moonlight is far more content to explore the characters rather than the environment and situations they find themselves in. Wherever we find Chiron, he comes off as relatable, and you are more concerned with his decisions that will shape where his life goes next. Even when he becomes an adult who mimics the only father-figure he had, the film takes its time to unravel the dilemma of what he will do when confronted with the ultimate question about his identity.
Moonlight is a beautiful film which has no problem digging through the ugliness of what it means to be a human being. It invites the audience to peer under the facade the character wears in the hopes that the audience will do the same when they look in the mirror.
Here is the trailer for Moonlight: