Once again, a film arrives in the UK after an extended awards season in which its excellence is established as almost a given; and, just as Annette Benning’s snub was indeed a snub, Moonlight is indeed a magical and heartfelt film – though perhaps not quite the era-defining masterpiece the press has heralded.
Following three stages of the life of Chiron, a young black man living in Miami, Moonlight is a triptych piece, and each setting vies for attention as the defining era of Chiron’s life. The reality, of course, is that each plays an equal part in painting the picture of a young man struggling to understand, and embrace, himself. Silently fleeing from his erratic mother (Naomie Harris laying it on ever so slightly too thick), a five-year-old Chiron (Alex Hibbert) finds himself drawn to the enigmatic and wizened dealer Juan – played with pathos by Mahershala Ali. As the young boy comes to understand the environment in which he’s been brought up, and the compromised positions of the adults surrounding him, he withdraws within himself.
Then, as a lanky teenager, Chiron, now played by Ashton Sanders, attempts to navigate the complexities of the American high school experience (one that veers ever so slightly towards cliché) as he comes to terms with his sexuality. Chiron is gay, has known as much for years, but struggles for outlets. A confused and fumbling relationship with another teen, Kevin, promises much and delivers complex eventualities.
Finally, older, bigger and visibly toughened by years on the defensive, the adult Chiron reconnects with his past, and teeters on the edge of self-acceptance. It is this portion of the film which delivers its tensest, most wrenching moments, as Chiron’s self-doubt and uncertainty is writ small on his features, shown in the expressional minutiae of a repressed man. Moonlight is at its best, a soaring high water mark, when it is allowing this wonderful cast to express themselves with freedom and a sense of reality. Ali’s Academy Award is a heartening reward for subtle work, and any of the three ages of Chiron could be justifiably garlanded in similar style.
Director and adapted-screenwriter Barry Jenkins has crafted a film that showcases a variety of struggles and tensions in American society – from wider traumas of race and enduring segregation to the particulars of homosexulity in a violently masculine environment. Despite its occasional moments of predictability, Moonlight soars when it addresses these issues under as minute a lense as possible. A glance towards an open diner door; a lingering self-examination in a dingy mirror; the unthinking questioning of a young child; a lonely train journey into the city; these are Jenkins’s masterworks, and Moonlight is a beautiful collage of such moments.