Distributed by: A24

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


                I became a champion for Moonlight after receiving the musical score by Nicholas Britell.  It wasn’t just that the music was amazing, it was that the storyline was intriguing.  The clips and snippets of video I had seen provided me with a perfect view of the drama in the film.  When the film began winning awards for the screenplay, acting and more, I rooted for them all the way, despite having yet to see the film in its entirety.  I’ve finally gotten that opportunity.

                Based on the semi-autographical play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is presented in three stages, showing us the life of Chiron, a young man growing up in the shadow of drugs in Liberty City, Miami.  We are first introduced to Chiron as a child (Alex Hibbert).  Nicknamed Little by the bullies in his school, Chiron lives in an apartment with his mother Paula (Naomie Harris).  Shy and withdrawn, Chiron finds himself an easy target for bullies.  One day, witnessing a pack of boys chasing another, Cuban drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds Chiron hiding in an abandoned house.  Juan brings Chiron home to his girlfriend Teresa  (Janelle Monae).

                It is at Juan’s home that Chiron learns what family is about.  At his own home, his mother is almost never home, causing Chiron to fend for himself.  When she is home, she is emotionally abusive, perhaps because of the stress of her single mother status, but more probably due to her addiction to crack cocaine.  Juan and Teresa encourage Chiron to have fun and to be happy with who he is on the inside.  Unfortunately, Chiron’s views of Juan as a father figure are shattered when he learns that Juan is his mother’s drug dealer.

                We now meet Chiron as a teenager (Ashton Sanders) who is still finding himself the target of bullies led by fellow classmate Terrel (Patrick Decile).  He finds solace in spending an abundance of his time at Teresa’s house.  Alone since the death of Juan, Teresa treats Chiron as if he were her own child, providing the love and care his own mother can’t seem to muster.  Chiron’s only friend his age is his classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) who has nicknamed him Black.  Chiron finds himself interested in Kevin in other ways and is surprised to find the feeling is mutual.  But he is eventually betrayed by Kevin when, at Terrel’s direction, Kevin attacks Chiron in a hazing ritual.  Frustrated with his life at home and at school, Chiron decides to fight back, landing him in jail.

                We now flash forward to meet adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes).  Going by the nickname bestowed on him by Kevin, Black has been selling drugs on the streets of Atlanta since his release from prison.  Ironically, Chiron’s mother is now in a rehabilitation center, getting help to overcome her drug addiction.  One day, Chiron gets an apologetic phone call from Kevin and his world is turned upside down.  The man who betrayed him has apologized.  He now finds his mother apologizing for the way she treated him all those years.  Chiron looks at his life and finds it lacking.  He heads out to Miami and the diner that Kevin works at to see if there is more to life than what he now has.

                There’s a lot going on in this film – bullying, drug abuse, emotional abuse, being true to oneself, tolerance and more.  There is also a great deal of symbolism here that, if you blink, you might not notice.  For one thing, when we first meet Chiron, we notice that his mother appears to be a hard-working woman.  The apartment is neat and tidy, despite being in a worn-down development.  As the movie progresses and Paula’s drug use increases, the apartment is seen differently – the paint is different…dingier and less clean.  There are things missing as Paula sells their belongings for a quick high.  As the relationship between mother and son deteriorates, the apartment actually appears worse, with items in a sincere state of disrepair.  The apartment thus symbolizes the deterioration of both the mother and her relationship with her son. 

This symbolism is also present in the ocean.  Chiron has experienced great happiness at the beach, whether it is Juan teaching him to swim or Kevin teaching him that his feelings for him are not wrong.  His greatest traumas occur away from the water.  The ocean symbolizes the giver of life and the further he gets from the water, that gift becomes something he can’t attain.

Even Chiron’s clothing is symbolic of his plight in life.  As a child, he is mostly neat and pressed.  As a teenager, his clothing is disheveled and worn.  As an adult, everything is perfectly in place and his clothing takes on an air of rebelliousness, showing off Chiron’s greatest assets, his toughness and his monetary reach.  The various aspects of his childhood and teenage years have influenced Chiron in ways even he can’t imagine and one of those subtle ways is in his style of clothing throughout the years.

But symbolism aside, Moonlight sends a very poignant message about being different, being gay and bullying.  The message about bullying is clear from the very beginning of the film and is carried all the way through.  Bullying leads to bad consequences for all involved.  Chiron has always felt he was different and has only ever known ridicule for those differences.  Anger and anguish go hand in hand for Chiron after every such incident, but eventually, the contents of a pot will reach its boiling point and may boil over.  Chiron is that boiling pot and the consequential boil over sends his tormentor to the hospital and Chiron to jail, turning him into an angry and bitter adult. 

The message about being different and being gay tend to go hand in hand in this film.  Chiron is made to feel that being different is wrong by the other children.  His experience regarding references to homosexuality made by his mother and his peers are all negative.  The only people who make him feel that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality are Juan, Teresa and Kevin.  Out of those three, Chiron is betrayed by two – Juan sells his mother the drugs that are aiding in destroying his relationship with her and Kevin attacks him at the behest of a bully.  What is Chiron to believe?  In the end, Chiron is vindicated with those who hurt him apologizing and making him realize that there was never anything wrong with who he was or how he felt.

The acting in this film was phenomenal and I applaud Mahershala Ali for his Academy Award for his portrayal as Juan, the drug dealer with heart.  I think there were amazing performances all around, though, especially by Ashton Sanders, Naomie Harris, Alex Hibbart, Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland and Janelle Monae.  The cinematography was excellent, the darkness of various scenes giving us a glimpse into the darkness Chiron sees in the world and the scenes featuring waves crashing on the shore showing us the glimpse of hope for beauty and redemption Chiron sees in the water.

Just reading about this film, I thought it was amazing, but seeing it gave me pause.  I sat staring at the screen long after the credits had scrolled.  I was in awe of what I had just watched – the script, the acting, the storyline, the message – and I needed a moment just to take it all in.  Moonlight is just one of those movies destined to become a classic – it’s well-written, has a poignant message that will stand the test of time and some amazing acting.  Moonlight is definitely a must see!


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