Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)

Posted: January 17, 2017 in Uncategorized

“Moonlight” is the story of a boy, Chiron, shown at three different periods of his life. As a young child he is played by Alex Hibbert, as a teen by Ashton Sanders, and as an adult by Trevante Rhodes. The story is not much to write home about. Chiron is gay, though he doesn’t figure that out until he’s a teenager, even if everyone else knows it from the time he’s a child. Being gay is hard enough, even in 2016, but tack on being in poverty, and being Black, and having a mother addicted to crack (yeah, that’s a bit of cliché, no?), and you have the recipe for a really trying childhood. To its credit, “Moonlight” shies away from easy melodrama and focuses on character moments and has a tone of realism that allows the film to rise above its more clichéd narrative moments to be a film that is at times be heartbreaking.

When we first meet Chiron, he is running from some kids who are teasing him, and he takes refuge inside a boarded up crack den. He is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who happens to be the main drug dealer of the community. Juan is actually a good guy, save for the fact that he sells the drug that hurts his impoverished community, and is directly causing Chiron hardship by creating the environment in which Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) can lose her seemingly good job as a nurse to become a dope fiend (and possibly a  prostitute, though this is merely implied). We get the feeling that Juan doesn’t necessarily view himself as some gangsta crimelord or emulate Scarface, but is rather making the best living he can under his limited circumstances. We’re told he came from Cuba as a child, indicating his family probably came to United States with nothing and that Juan, therefore, didn’t have much of an opportunity to excel, especially being black, regardless of the “American Dream” many citizens of this country are deluded into believing actually exists. Juan takes a shine to the boy and becomes something of a father figure to him. He treats Chiron well, feeds him, and even his girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monae) becomes something of a more responsible mother to the child. When Chiron is berated by his real mother, you see Juan’s remorse and inner turmoil with knowing he is responsible for Chiron’s life being irreparably worse due to Juan’s actions, and you know it kills him.

As a teen, Chiron is still teased by other kids. His mother is even more of an addict, and Juan has since died. The one bright spot may be Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome in the teen segment, and later by Andre Holland), a boy who treats Chiron like a friend and gives him the nickname Black. Kevin seems to be straight, bragging about getting detention for having sex with a female peer, but then one night Chiron and Kevin share a sexual experience down by the beach, and we know Kevin is either bisexual or on the down-low.  In any event, Kevin does not experience the teasing that Chiron does, and is even liked by some of the very same kids who bully Chiron regularly.

Events transpire, and we then see Chiron as an adult, having followed in Juan’s footsteps and ended up a drug dealer in Atlanta. One day he gets a call from Kevin, who he hasn’t spoken to since an unpleasant event a decade earlier, and old unresolved feelings come flooding back, as does the realization that Chiron never became the person he was truly meant to be, or who he was inside, as he remained forever stuck in the circumstances life threw at him.

Each individual segment has moments of power. This is largely a movie about people interacting with people, and the things people leave unsaid between themselves. It’s about how we don’t have as much of a choice in life as to who we are as we think we do. It’s about struggles that are both universal and also very specific to sexual identity, economic status, and race. While I wish the story maybe didn’t hit as many clichéd story beats as we’ve seen from other films about Black poverty, or even gay teen coming of age films, the film does make up for this by having across the board phenomenal acting, and isolated moments of extreme power as we feel for the characters. While some characters, like Chiron’s mother, feel like a cliché, other characters like Juan and Kevin eschew clichés associated with their characters, revealing that behind archetypes of the ghetto drug dealer or the closeted gay Black man, are human beings with struggles and reasons that they have lived the lives they have lived, even if they are lives they don’t wish they had lived.

“Moonlight” is at time powerful, and the good moments far outweigh the more clichéd narrative issues. B+

 

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