Back in December my parents saw Moonlight and insisted I make time to see it. I prioritized some other movies (Manchester By The Sea, La La Land, Hidden Figures) but the film won Best Picture / Drama at the Golden Globes and Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, so I knew I had to hurry up and catch it before the Oscars.
Moonlight is 111 minutes of pain and heartbreak. I thought Manchester By The Sea was the toughest movie I would see this season, but Moonlight may trump it. The film is told in three parts, each segment titled after the main character's nick name during that phase of his life - Little, Chiron and Black.
We meet Chiron (his given name) when he's in elementary school, living in Miami. We learn quickly that the other kids at school think he is gay and torment him every day, in the building and when he tries to walk home. He runs to safety in an abandoned building used as a crack den. Think about that - a elementary school age kid feels safer hiding in a crack den then walking home with his classmates.
Chiron's mother, played by Naomie Harris, is a crack addict. Though she claims to be upset when he sometimes doesn't come home at night, her actions speak louder than her words. She is a neglectful, verbally abusive parent.
In his younger years, Chiron meets a man named Juan who takes him in and offers him shelter from his unstable life with his mother. Juan is brought to life by Mahershala Ali, who has already won a Screen Actors Guild Award for this film and is nominated for an Oscar. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (played by Janelle Monáe) become the only two reliable figures in Chiron's life. Not only do they feed him and give him a place to sleep, Juan teaches him to swim and eventually, they talk to him about what it means to be gay (after his birth mother calls him a faggot).
Though Juan is a great role model for Chiron in many ways, he makes a living as a drug dealer. In one of the most painful scenes in the movie, Chiron (still in elementary school) asks Juan at the dinner table, "Do you sell drugs?" Juan can't even bear to answer him verbally, so very slowly begins to nod his head. Then Chiron continues, "And my mama does drugs?" and Juan begins that same slow, guilty nod. Chiron stares at Juan, pushes his chair back and walks out of the house, leaving Juan at the table with tears dripping down his face.
In the middle section of the film, Chiron is in high school. His mother is in worse shape than ever and the kids at school have escalated their taunting to include serious physical violence.
In one impossibly hard scene, Chiron is beaten up by a group of classmates. A few scenes later, he re-enters school with a vengeance. He defiantly pushes through each doorway leading to his science classroom, where he lifts a wooden chair, with no hesitation, and cracks it right over one of the boy's heads. People in the theater clapped and cheered.
In the third and final chapter of the film, Chiron is a grown man. He has moved north to Atlanta and sells drugs, just like Juan. After an unexpected phone call from his childhood friend, Kevin, he travels back down to Miami to visit him. Adult Kevin is played by André Holland, who you may recognize from 42 or Selma. There is a long scene in a diner (where Kevin now works) where the two grown men walk down memory lane, reopening memories Chiron had closed off a long time ago. I don't want to ruin it for you, but Chiron has a line at the very end, when he is trying to explain to Kevin what their friendship meant to him, and it gutted me.
When the credits rolled in the theater, no one got up. Not because they were showing photos or bonus clips, but because everyone was so weighed down by what we had just seen. This movie is, in a word, heavy. It's heavy and heartbreaking.
The friend who I saw it with said, "It felt like watching a poem, rather than a story." I completely agree. The movie is shot in a beautiful, artistic way. There are moments with no sound, just movement, that actually mimic how we all remember things in our brains. They way we flash back and fixate on a smile, a certain body movement, a piece of furniture, a car driving away.
In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, "Moonlight is both a disarmingly, at times almost unbearably personal film and an urgent social document, a hard look at American reality and a poem written in light, music and vivid human faces." In a similar tone, Hilton Als says in The New Yorker, "Jenkins (Barry Jenkins, the director) keeps the fear but not the melodrama in his film. He builds his scenes slowly, without trite dialogue or explosions. He respects our intelligence enough to let us just sit still and watch the glorious faces of his characters as they move through time. Scene follows scene with the kind of purposefulness you find in fairy tales, or in those Dickens novels about boys made and unmade by fate."
Moonlight is directed by Barry Jenkins, who grew up in Liberty City in Miami, where the film is set. There is no doubt Jenkins' personal experience is what gives the film its authenticity. Moonlight is nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Directing, Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Cinematography, Editing and Original Score.