A24 1 hour and 51 minutes R
This is no ordinary coming of age story. The movie is powerful and intensely realistic following three stages of one boy’s journey to manhood. Chiron is the lone and lonely son of a crack and sex addicted single Mother who feels he belongs nowhere and has nowhere to go. It deals with poor single Moms, drug dealing and addiction, bullying, even sexual orientation. His struggle to survive will grab you and tear you apart.
This is Writer/Director Barry Jenkins' first feature film and he based the story on his own childhood. His mother was an addict. Jenkins adapted the story from a play by 2013 MacArthur Fellow Tarell Alvin McCraney titled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”
Jenkins made sure that none of the three males who played the boys met or talked to each other so they’d aeach have their own character. Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe and Naomie Harris are all being talked about for their performances and rightly so. Ali was actually playing different characters in 4 movies while acting in this film and says he put together different playlists for each one as a tool to get him into each role.
Alex R. Hibbert plays the youngest Chiron nicknamed Little. Bullied at school, he runs and hides in an abandoned apartment that turns out to be a drug house. Drug Dealer, Juan, played by Ali, discovers Little alone and completely uncommunicative. He won’t talk. Ali says this is a film about humanity. He plays a tough, but sensitive man who’s been there and has compassion. He wants to help this young boy.
Juan takes him under his wing and with the help of his girlfriend, Teresa, played by Grammy nominated singer/songwriter in her first feature film, Janelle Monáe. Little finds a safe place to go where they care. Teresa’s rule? “It’s all love and all pride in this house.” Very different than life with his desperate Mom, played with emotion by Naomie Harris. Harris first said this was one character she would never play but changed her mind. She has a pivotal role and she gets kind of lost in the middle but comes back strong later in the film. Her very dramatic scenes were shot in just 3 days while she was also shooting the James Bond movie, Spectre.
With Juan and Teresa, Little gets guidance and learns values. One touching scene is where Juan teaches Little how to swim. It was shot as though you are in the water with him. The water line comes up on the camera lens. You can feel Little’s apprehension. Then you see how Juan calms him, giving him the confidence to try to swim on his own. Juan’s boisterous laugh at the boy’s success bonds the two and helps him grow. Ironically, Hibbert, who plays Little, never learned to swim, so this was a real lesson.
In his teen years, Chiron is still bullied at school. He is shy, uncomfortable and awkward as the kids prey on him. He befriends a boy named Kevin with whom he has his first gay sexual experience. At first, it is a disturbing scene watching Chiron awkward and uncomfortable trying to figure out what’s going on, but it is shot sensitively and respectfully showing Chiron questioning his own sexuality. When he’s called “Faggot” at school, he asks Juan what that means and Juan explains that it’s a word “to make gay people feel bad.” Juan is there for Chiron with values better than we expect from someone who grew up on the streets. He’s a thinking, feeling human being who also happens to sell drugs.
But we didn’t expect what Chiron becomes as an adult. His third stage is as a man called “Black,” played by Westworld’s Trevante Rhodes, who takes on the persona of someone he obviously admired. Then he reaches out to the person who gave him friendship when he needed it most. He goes to meet his friend Kevin, played as an adult now by André Holland (Selma) at the diner Kevin owns. They talk, catch up on the years that have passed and connect again. There’s more without them saying much in the last brilliant scene.
Jenkins has created a sensitive film that delves into the many problems Black youth face and the problems we see on the news over and over again. And after watching this film, you may see Moonlight in a different light.