There is a common struggle that many, if not all of us, battle from youth onward. Each of us is intricately unique individuals, but our desire to connect with one another pushes us towards conformity. For some, this is easier, and more acceptable, than others. Our uniqueness can take many forms. Whether being a “nerd” in a country football town or a “jock” in Silicon Valley, the desire to conform can be overpowering, especially if coupled with bullying and abuse if we do not. As children, we are sometimes limited in our exposure to others who are similar to who we are at our core, and this isolation from similarity can be terrifying.
“Moonlight” weaves a powerful tale of a young boy growing up in a Miami ghetto. His father is nowhere to be seen and his mother is being sucked into the abyss of drug abuse. At 9 years old, the other kids have already noticed he is different and chase him into an abandoned crack house where he is rescued by a local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali) The boy is mostly silent but eventually says his name is “Little” (Alex R. Hibbert)
A small title card marks this point in the film, “i: Little,” and does so twice again as we watch this young boy grow into a man as significant events shape who he becomes. “Little” as a young boy, “Chiron” (Ashton Sanders) during high school, and “Black” (Trevante Rhodes) as an adult. In his youth, Chiron is awkward, quiet, and hangs his head low with insecurity. The closest thing he has to a friend is a fellow classmate named Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome). Kevin is fully aware that Chiron is “odd” but is supportive in his own, sometimes overpowering way.
Events during his High School years take Chiron to a breaking point in which he finally takes a stance on who he wants to be. This defining event leads him to Atlanta where we see him next as an adult. Embracing the nickname Kevin gave him as a child, his Georgia license plate reads, BLACK305. (A very telling nod towards the Miami area code where he grew up)
The brilliance of this film is multi-faceted. Barry Jenkins’ screenplay is sharp and rings true. His characters are all complex and believable, especially Chiron and Juan. Too often films reduce characters to the lowest common stereotype. Black, Ghetto, Drug Dealer – you already know how this character will talk and behave in 90% of movies. And while Juan may inhabit some of the signature traits (Impala, swagger, omnipresent pager) his persona goes much deeper. He becomes a father figure to Little and a major impact (both positive and negative) on his life. He struggles with the moral paradox of trying to protect Little but also being the source from where his mother gets her drugs. Ironically, Juan is also one of the most honest people in Chiron’s entire life. One scene of loving honesty is incredibly heartbreaking.
Another exceptional element that Barry Jenkins brings to the film as director is the choice of music. Again, it would be easy to fall back on the stereotypes, but instead, a majority of the film is scored with classical music. It may seem odd in print, but experiencing it during all of Chiron’s moments of truth and growth is stunning. Only occasionally does the film break into more contemporary tunes, and it’s always for very specific reasons. It has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
“Moonlight” is a special film, one that could easily go underappreciated. There will always be popcorn-flicks at the theatre, but movies as touching and beautiful as this are few and far between.