Barry Jenkin’s coming-of-age triptych Moonlight, which tells the story of a man named Chiron, is an emotional thriller. It’s a film that deeply invests you in the life of its protagonist, pulling you deeper and deeper in, until the empathetic power of cinema intertwines your emotions with their’s. And then Jenkins sets up a tantalising possibility in the film’s final act that means so much for this character, the path that his life could take that will redefine his identity – at least his public one – and his chance at happiness with someone else. This makes for one of the most tense sequences in cinema this year, as you creep further and further to the edge of your seat, desperate to know what will happen next. The electrical charge between the two characters in this final sequence is intense and constant, and the only interruption comes as a bell occasionally rings, breaking their concentration, as if the lighting rods between them arc away for a second, drawn towards the sound. It’s thrilling and utterly heartbreaking all at once.
This is not a climax that is easily achieved, and Jenkins and his phenomenal cast – three actors play the central character, and each turn in extraordinarily nuanced performances of a deeply introverted character – build up to this point with the kind of slow and meticulous detail that is more frequently seen in the exquisitely rich romantic films of the likes of Wong Kar-wai or Hou Hsiao-Hsien – Jenkins has acknowledged that Hou’s Three Times was an influence on the structure of Moonlight.
The film begins with Chiron as a child, as played by Alex Hibbert. Chiron is known as Little, and is already straining to find his place in the world and struggling with the difficulties he faces growing up poor, with a mother addicted to drugs. As we discover through the most minute of signifiers, she is also most likely turning to prostitution to fund her habit. Little finds a paternal figure in Juan (Mahershala Ali), who teaches the young boy to swim, provides him with the occasional square meal and a little fatherly advice when he needs it. One conversation that at first seems minor, but resonates greatly, sees him quizzed by Little as to what the word ‘faggot’ means, and Juan tries his hardest to give the young boy the right information – his partner Teresa (Janelle Monae) wordlessly and rather amusingly points him in the right direction at one point.
Even as Juan tries to help Little, he’s also part of the problem, helping to fill the streets with the drugs that Little’s mother is hooked on. This section is shot in a way that encourages so much intimacy with its characters – Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton really keep the camera close to its subjects at times when we need to engage the most with the ways in which they are feeling. The sun-drenched images and graceful camera moves also add a sense of beauty that ensures we see the light that can be achieved in Little’s life, even if this possibility isn’t always obvious.
These glimpse of beauty, hints at transcendence, return again in small moments and even during difficult times for Chiron. In a scene in which Little play-fights with other school kids, for instance, Jenkins chooses to overlay Mozart, a choice that wouldn’t be perhaps the most obvious needle drop, but it’s again the suggestion of something more, the beauty in the unknown possibility.
When the film flashes forward to its second chapter – each of the three parts is divided by a title card and the name that Chiron now goes by – we see that Chiron is perhaps even worse off than he was in the opening. Now a teenager, he is skinny, still poor, and bullied for these facts and the assumption by his tormentors that he is gay. Only one person seems to be interested in helping Chiron, a local boy named Kevin. The two begin to develop a friendship and ultimately share an emotionally monumental experience together that appears life-changing for Chiron. Laxton’s camera is tasteful but intimate throughout this night-time sequence, and teenage fumblings play out more like the beginnings of a grand and beautiful romance. The scene ends too on a moment that quietly conveys a great deal, both narratively and in speaking to the wider overarching theme.
This scene takes place on the beach, returning to the location in which Juan taught Little to swim, and a place that will again be referenced in the film’s closing moments. The sea and the beach in cinema is frequently used as a symbolic space that implies escape and the unknown possibilities of the future, the enigma of what lies beyond the horizon in the seemingly limitless expanse of the ocean.
With Moonlight, Barry Jenkins has done something quite remarkable in making such a deeply felt film that has these moments of beauty and emotional weight, but at the same time enriching the story with a great deal of political and cultural depth.
Whilst Jenkins never, ever sermonises – he seems far more interested in making you feel something than telling you about it – Moonlight is very much about some big issues, with homosexuality and race being the two that are returned to most frequently. These are embedded in the main character’s crisis of identity though – the very thing that gives the film its dramatic tension – and whilst these may be important issues, they are issues that Jenkins – working from an un-produced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney – weaves into the film, making them intrinsic to his characters.
Jenkins ensures that you won’t miss them though, even going so far as to have Chiron adopt the nickname ‘Black’ in the final section. The film also opens with Juan listening to Every Nigger is a Star by Boris Gardiner in his car as he drives into frame. A sample of the chorus of Gardiner’s track was also the first thing heard on Kendrick Lamar’s stunning 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, which was very much a statement about the current African American experience. The use of the song in Moonlight very much makes a statement too, with Jenkins setting out his stall from the very first seconds of the film, and making it clear that he’s not going to shy away from the significance of the film’s setting and its central characters’ race.
As Moonlight closes on an enigmatic shot that offers a promise rather than a conclusion, the emotional force of the film comes crashing over you like a wave. A film that is both intellectually rich and utterly heartbreaking, Moonlight is an astonishing piece of work and marks Jenkins out as one of the most thrilling directors working today.