MOONLIGHT is a seemingly simple story told in a universal, fascinatingly layered way. It explores the life of a young black man who struggles to find his place and identity in the world while growing up in a rough Miami neighbourhood.
We’re presented with three individual stages. The first focuses on his childhood where Chiron (played then by Alex Hibbert) is taken under the wing of charismatic local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who becomes something of a surrogate father.
Then it switches to his teenage years when Chiron (Ashton Sanders) has an unexpected romantic encounter with his best friend and gets into serious trouble at school for violent behaviour.
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Then jump to the third stage where Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has developed into the portrait of toughness and masculinity on the outside but is still in search of his inner identity.
For the first time since Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, an American film gives us a true, genuinely unique look at that journey of time passing from adolescence to manhood through a lens that feels at once distinctive and wholly, believably natural. Each of the actors brings something special to the role, crucially making it feel like an authentic, multi-faceted portrait of one individual over time.
Debut feature director Barry Jenkins shows right off the bat that he has an eye for stylish visuals and haunting imagery – Chiron being held baptism-like in the sea by Juan will linger long in the memory – but this is not an exercise in style over substance.
He clearly values the weight of character development, subtly powerful performances and provocative questions as much as the style of how he presents it. What does it mean to grow up as a gay black man in modern America? How does a loving but deeply troubled addict mother (Naomie Harris) influence an impressionable young boy? The film explores tough questions with potent conviction and heart.
Jenkins’s film is a keenly observed, vividly realised and boldly told character study about the difficulties of growing up, identity (personal, racial, sexual) and the perceptions and fragility of masculinity. It’s a hard one to shake from the mind and, most importantly, you won’t want to.