It’s probably safe to skip past referring to Barry Jenkins as a director to watch and call him a major filmmaker with the release of his Moonlight, which is the most impressive leap for a director from his debut to sophomore film that I’ve seen since Paul Thomas Anderson went from Hard Eight to Boogie Nights.
Jenkins’s first picture, Medicine for Melancholy, was a charming, low-budget indie set in San Francisco. It appeared to have been influenced by Richard Linklater’s three Before movies, but his second film displays the hand of an assured director, from the terrific performances he draws from his entire cast, the gorgeous visuals, the inspired use of music, and ability to weave complex themes and ideas into a completely satisfying whole.
Comparisons to a number of films abound, including Brokeback Mountain, Boyhood, Boyz n the Hood, or any gritty coming-of-age drama set amid an urban backdrop. Yet Moonlight defies classification. It features a character who is for all purposes gay, but sexuality is only one of many concepts explored here. While the entire cast is black, race is only one of the picture’s many themes, rather than its driving force.
We’re never quite sure when the action is taking place – at times, it could be the 1980s, 1990s or even today – but there are three very distinct times comprising the film’s narrative. Divided into three chapters – Little, Chiron and Black – the picture follows Chiron, a shy, poor black kid growing up with a drug-addicted mother in a rough neighborhood in Miami.
We first meet Chiron – at this point referred to as Little and played by Alex R. Hibbert – running from a group of kids who want to harm him. He hides out in an abandoned apartment, where he is discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali, of House of Cards), a Cuban-born drug dealer who becomes a father figure that smashes every cliche we’d expect for a morally compromised character. Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), also takes a shine to Chiron and gives him the motherly attention sorely lacking at home, where his actual mom (Naomie Harris) spends much of her time strung out.
In the second chapter, a quiet and mostly friendless teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) struggles through high school, where he is a prime target for bullies. However, he has at least one friend in Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a lothario whom we met in the first chapter wrestling playfully with Chiron, seemingly much to the latter’s pleasure. The two boys share an intimate moment on a beach that clearly acts as a pivotal life moment for Chiron, but it’s later tainted after a group of boys, including Kevin, pick on him.
In the final chapter, Chiron is beefed up, wears a grill in his mouth and has become a drug dealer in Atlanta, driving around a car with a crown once owned by Juan on his car’s dashboard. He receives a phone call from his mother, who wants him to come home so that she can offer him a peace treaty, but also gets one from Kevin, who has in the decade since done a prison stint, but also fathered a child, and now works as a cook. The two men meet up at Kevin’s diner, which leads to the film’s much talked about finale, which includes a poignant conversation and what could possibly be viewed as a breakthrough for Chiron.
“Who is you?” is a question that is repeated twice during the course of the film, first by Chiron’s mother to Juan after he drops him off at home for the first time and then later directed to adult Chiron by Kevin. While Chiron is gay, black, shy and bullied, none of these attributes exactly drive the film’s narrative, but rather enhance its theme of identity and how signature moments during the course of our lives result in defining our characters.
Moonlight has a lot to unpack thematically. Considering that Jenkins had previously only made one other feature eight years ago, it’s surprising how much depth and richness there is. The three actors portraying Chiron, Kevin, Harris, Monae, and Ali all provide tremendous performances. The visuals are luminous and fit the picture’s title: moonlight often bathes the actors. The writing is superb. The film’s music, including songs from Boris Gardiner to Barbara Lewis to mid-1990s Goodie Mob, is used expertly to comment on the action.
This is easily one of the year’s best films, the rare breakout film that lives up to the hype. What makes it so powerful is how it takes so many complex themes, from sexuality to race to masculinity and a Bildungsroman plot, and deftly weaves together all the threads. Watching the film, there’s no question that you’re in the hands of a filmmaker with significant talent and confidence. Moonlight positively glows.
Watch the Moonlight trailer below: