“At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you’re gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.” Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s postgraduate theatre project In Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight is a coming of age story, exploring the themes of masculinity and vulnerability in a stark yet poetic light. It is divided into three chapters, each representing a turning point in the protagonist’s life.
We are introduced to the scrawny nine-year old Chiron, nicknamed “Little”, being bullied in the streets of Miami by his schoolmates, who seem to recognise something in him that is still a secret to Chiron himself. He is noticed by Juan (the poignant Mahershala Ali), a local drug-dealer who takes him under his wing. Along with his affectionate partner (Janelle Monàe), they become the closest thing the young boy has to a normal household, a refuge away from the cruel neglect of his drug-addicted mother (performed beautifully by Naomie Harris).
A couple of years later, Chiron has become a withdrawn teenager, struggling to fit in with the toxic masculine atmosphere around him. The only boy that is kind to him is Kevin, a child he wrestled with in the first chapter. One night by the beach, the two share more than just a furtive smoke. But the vicious bullying gets the better of Chiron and when we meet him again, prison has transformed him into a buff drug-dealer with golden grills on his teeth, a reborn Juan who uses his hard-earned virility as a shield.
Moonlight masterfully balances both its lyrical, aesthetic aspect with raw, subtle character work. It avoids overwhelming us with despair by displaying the beauty that surrounds Chiron, even in the most desolate moments.
While the focus remains on the characters, it skilfully explores universal themes such as identity, sexuality, and most importantly the relationship between vulnerability and masculinity. The latter seems particularly relevant in the leitmotif of water representing Chiron’s feelings throughout the film. The sound of waves is the first thing we hear and it returns in the most sensual moments of the young man’s life. Chiron describes himself as crying so much that he feels like he’s going to turn into drops that will just roll out into the water. In this remarkable and uncompromising script that refuses to pin its characters to clichés, his vulnerability painted in contrast with such a harsh environment is absolutely beautiful.
Barry Jenkins uses his camera to explore the story through an introspective angle to introduce us into Chiron’s world: it seems to participate in the characters’ movement rather than follow them.
For instance, when Chiron learns how to swim, the lens is submerged beneath the water. When he wrestles, we can barely distinguish the entangled limbs on the screen. When a close up is made on a character’s face, we often hear their words being said without their lips moving, as if they were fragments of memories. The confusion this style creates, especially during the violent scenes, brings a sense of detachment to the audience. There lies the true brilliance of this film: by instilling in us a certain numbness to the violent events taking place, the moments where vulnerability and truthfulness come through are all the more powerful.