Moonlight – One Outsider’s Story of Identity Lost and Found

“Who is you, Chiron?”

Maybe it’s because, so far, 2016 hasn’t been a particularly notable year for film. Sure, we got The Lobster in the spring, but what else? A dud of a Bourne movie. Another Da Vinci Code. Really? If I had to make a “top movies of the year” list right at this very moment, I’d probably have to cheat and put The People vs OJ Simpson on there just to get to ten. So maybe that’s part of the reason why Moonlight, which debuted in September at the Toronto Film Festival, stands out as such a singular achievement – it floored me when I saw it a week ago, and I haven’t stopped thinking about since. And maybe it’s because it really is the best movie of 2016 so far- it’s certainly taken the top spot on my list.

On first description, Moonlight’s vision might seem unique but myopic – composed of moments from one boy’s life, set in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood, the movie gives us a startlingly intimate perspective on his experience growing up black, impoverished and unsure of his sexuality. It’s a world we rarely see portrayed on the screen, but however unknown or different from your own personal experience, Moonlight draws you in, managing the tricky task of telling a story that is both intricately anchored in its setting and characters, and yet completely universal in its understanding of humanity. In 110 minutes, I felt like I knew the life portrayed on screen as well as I knew my own. Writer and director Barry Jenkins  accomplishes this by structuring the film with the passage of time that moves his character from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. Those three life stages divide the movie, with jumps between each and a one word title card – “Little”, “Chiron”, “Black” – introducing us by way of his designated name at that time.Who he actually is, though – that’s the very deliberate question at the heart of this story.

As a child, Little’s world is one of dread and danger – danger that comes from his isolation within his community. Bullied as a fag by his classmates and held at a distance by his heroin addicted mom, from the opening scene we get that Little has few choices but to hide himself from the world. He’s in desperate need of a friend, an ally, any kind of connection and when he finds all three in a neighborhood man named Juan, it’s such a relief that you’re almost ready to overlook the other facts of Juan’s identity. He heads up much of the gang and drug activity that rules Little’s world and threatens his security. Juan, played by the multifaceted Mahershala Ali (seriously, is there anything this guy can’t do?) is so kind and patient, so accepting of this enraged, introverted child, it seems possible to overlook his faults and hope against reason that he could be the savior Little deserves.

But Moonlight is too pragmatic for that – there are no saviors coming to lift him out of his circumstances, no heroes with capes or cure-alls. Instead, as we watch Little grow into the teenage Chiron and then the adult Black, we also get to observe the people who come in and out of his life, who are as imperfect as he is, attempting connection in one scene and deserting him for their own self-interest in another. Whether Chiron is soaring or falling in his circumstances, Jenkins’ camera captures it all with a dreamy unhurriedness, lingering as waves lap a nighttime beach, stopping to compose a dilapidated hallway with colors saturated under electric lights and watching a character’s eyes as they try to understand the betrayal of their own feelings or the tenderness of someone else’s.

That gorgeous cinematography wouldn’t mean as much without consistently strong performances – and consistency is key here as the actors playing Chiron and his childhood friend Kevin (who may also be his first love, a conduit to another kind of connection) change with each time jump. While Chiron is forever engaged in the discovery and construction of his own identity, we never doubt that this is the frightened child grew who into this lonely teenager who grew into this powerful man (seemingly modeled on Juan’s brand of authority) – all of them aloof with the outsider’s veil of protection. The acting is just that precise, and like the other elements of Moonlight it comes together to make a movie 2016 can be proud of.

Moonlight is now playing in select theaters.


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