Coming out of a drought of African American-led powerhouse films, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a stellar film experience that many probably haven’t heard of, though they certainly will soon. Though it might not nearly be as epic as something like Boyhood in its telling of a young black man growing up in a tough Miami neighborhood with a druggie mother and his struggles with accepting his homosexuality, it is nonetheless one of the most affecting movies you’ll see all year.
We meet Chiron at three different points in his life, punctuated by the nicknames he receives from his peers; “Little” (Alex R. Hibbert), “Chiron” (Ashton Sanders), and “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). Each period is interconnected with both the past and future as we see the true meaning of being shaped by your environment.
Moonlight’s emotions come with the passage of time and the sense that Chiron’s life is out of our control. From a young age, we watch him cope with his distant mother who spirals into drug addiction, only to be saved by a friendship with Juan (Mahershala Ali) who takes him in like a son along with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). In his high school years, his mom starts to abuse him and take his money while Chiron also comes to terms with his budding sexuality and the escalating attacks from his peers. His later life shows him as almost a carbon-copy of Juan, his mom showing regret, and the reappearance of a face from the past that had a monumental effect on him.
Across the board Moonlight’s performances are beautiful and inspiring—there will be uprising if nobody from this film gets nominated for their performances. From the kindly, conflicted Ali imbuing Juan with nearly all the right elements of a father, to the graceful Monáe who commands respect and dishes out admiration and care, and every incarnation of Chiron, Oscar voters need to take notice—these performances cannot simply be brushed over. There is so much humanity in this film thanks to its performers, and they break your heart along the way because they make it feel so, so real.
Like life, Moonlight is not always an easy film to get through. and Jenkins breaks forth in his second film with a voice fresh and clear, but also loud. He grasps the decades-long story like its his own and becomes a new name to pay attention to. If this is only his second film, then there can only be more greatness to come.
It isn’t until near the end of Moonlight that you really see where Jenkins is going. And by that point we, like Chiron, have aged enough to be able to reflect on the previous events and analyze them for the effect that had on him. It’s beautifully done, evoking that sense of understanding that only comes after being separated from an event long enough to look at it through clear eyes. We don’t know where Chiron might go in life at the end of the film, but that’s life—scary and painful, but also amazing in retrospect.