Moonlight opens with a conversation. Two men, drug dealers, stand on the sidewalk discussing business. They’re checking in with one another, ensuring that things are running smoothly. The conversation’s interrupted as we cut to a young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert). He’s running as fast as his legs will carry him. He’s running from a group of children who look older than he is—they’re bigger and look a lot tougher. Eventually Chiron ducks those kids in what looks like an abandoned motel. It’s at this motel that Chiron meets the man who will later become his friend and mentor, Juan (Mahershala Ali).
Juan’s a familiar face. He’s the same guy we saw earlier, conversing with the other man in the street. Of the two, he looked to be the one in charge. At first, it’s unclear what Juan wants with a little kid like Chiron, but soon it becomes evident that he doesn't intended to harm him. On the contrary, Juan can tell Chiron needs a shoulder to lean on and a place to hide out for a moment, so he can catch his breath and calm his nerves.
Without exchanging more than a few words, Juan takes Chiron back to his house. With the help of his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), he gives the child a warm meal. It’s at Juan’s house that Chiron finally opens up and decides to talk, but only after being prodded and prompted. He’s a quiet boy, unsure of everybody and everything around him. Moonlight is his story.
With its recent Golden Globes win for Best Drama Motion Picture, chances are you’ve already heard Moonlight is good. Well, I am here today to confirm. It is indeed a beautiful movie. Director Barry Jenkins creates an incredibly delicate story of self discovery that at times is outright difficult to watch. There were even a few moments where the only thing I could do to cope with the reality being thrown at me was to avert my eyes for a second and reset. From the elegantly somber original score to the use of color and light, everything about this story sings.
By the end of the first of three chronological episodes, which are used to tell the story of Chiron’s upbringing, I was overwhelmed with emotion. Like I said, sometimes it’s hard to watch. Life can get ugly in a drug-riddled neighborhood, where violence and cruelty run rampant. And while it may be easier to look away, the quiet little boy with the terrified look in his big, beautiful eyes won’t allow it. Moonlight is impressive to say the least.
Mahershala Ali gives a devastatingly delicate and complex performance from the perspective of one of the tougher characters in this rough Miami neighborhood. His performance caught me off guard and left an immediate impression. As Juan, Ali is alert and observant, always aware of the notions that flash in and out of the look in Chiron’s eyes. The kid doesn’t say much, so Juan pays close attention, deciphering what he can, filling in the blanks with his own experience when needed. Ali is essentially impeccable as Juan. His command of the screen expresses a level of empathy that sets an awfully intriguing tone for the rest of the movie. His performance is a big part of what got me crying at the end of the first segment of this story.
Alex R. Hibbert’s performance as Little (young Chiron) was powerful as well. The young actor manages to hold his own, even when sharing the screen with Ali. Hibbert injects a whole lot of sentiment into every glance. Ashton Sanders (teenage Chiron) maintains the stoic nature Hibbert establishes as Little and injects the anger and frustration necessary to take our main character from child to adult. Finally, Trevante Rhodes also echoes the delicate and poignant performances of the other actors. He brings us a grown version of Chiron, more secure but still an outsider in his mind. He goes by a different name now, but it's clear he never figured out his place. Rhodes portrays an adult who is much stronger, but still uncertain of so much. His performance articulates restraint with a beautiful sort of pain. Collectively, these actors brought this story to life.
Naomie Harris' performance as Paula, Chiron’s mother, is one of the best things about this movie. Paula’s transformation from struggling-but-loving mother to full-blown crackhead is difficult to watch. Harris ensures you bleed for Paula. She echoes the empathy Ali establishes early on as Juan. With Paula, one personality disappears and another emerges in stark contrast. It's disconcerting and disheartening, but Harris brings it full circle by the end of the film. Her performance is bitingly real and fascinating.
I never expected Moonlight to be such an intriguing mixture of artistry and empathy. Together this exemplary cast and their innovative director create a story that’s instantly captivating. Moonlight tackles an array of social issues too. It's not just about Chiron figuring out his sexuality or finding his voice. It's about the place that handed him the cards he'd been dealt. Barry Jenkins presents the quiet story of a sensitive boy's coming of age in parallel with the story of school violence, drug abuse and poverty. Not only does he achieve an entertaining melding of all aspects of this story, he does so with respect and dignity.
From the color, lighting and original score, to the excellent performances, every aspect of this movie mesmerizes. Even Miami makes its mark. After all, the environment in which these events unfold is just as much a part of the story as Chiron himself. The reality is harsh, but the lighting is dreamy and everything comes together precisely to make Moonlight truly exceptional.
A+ = This is one of those rare instances where I’m going to urge you to go out of your way to watch a movie. Make a note of that title and make it happen. Hell, you might as well buy this one because you’re going to want to watch it over and over again.