By John Corrado
★★★★ (out of 4)
The story of a young black man and how his life changes from childhood to adulthood as he comes to terms with being gay, Moonlight is a heartbreaking and vital work of art, that has a profound lasting impact.
The film opens with our protagonist Chiron as an extremely shy young boy nicknamed Little (Alex R. Hibbert), growing up in a poor part of Miami, Florida. He is chased by bullies and ends up being taken under the wing of a kind drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Paula (Janelle Monáe), who become like surrogate guardians to him, as his birth mother (Naomie Harris) struggles with addiction.
We next see him as a teenager (Ashton Sanders), struggling with his sexuality and being relentlessly bullied for it, but sparking a complicated friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). The last act of the film shows Chiron as an adult (Trevante Rhodes), and how these experiences and people from his youth have helped shape him for better and for worse, as he reconnects with Kevin (André Holland).
Director Barry Jenkins, delivering only his second film after the excellent indie romance Medicine for Melancholy in 2008, handles every moment of Moonlight with a sensitive and intimate touch. The story is ingeniously structured in three distinct acts, each one painting a portrait of the different stages the lead character goes through as he explores his identity, offering a poignant study of race, class and sexuality that artfully challenges the notions of masculinity that many young boys grow up with.
The three leads Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes deliver a trio of nuanced and deeply felt performances, all bringing different but equally compelling shades to versions of the same character, that play seamlessly into each other to create a complete arc as a whole. Mahershala Ali is exceptional in his supporting role, delivering an unforgettable performance that is both confident and deeply moving, as he portrays an entire character arc over just a few scenes. Naomie Harris, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland also bring their share of powerful moments to the film.
Largely eschewing a typical narrative, Moonlight is instead edited to emotional beats, and the film keeps hitting us with these little moments that leave a profound impact, like a heart wrenching and powerfully acted scene where young Chiron asks what a derogatory gay slur means. It’s a film that understands the importance of moments, however brief or fleeting they might be, when it comes to shaping a life, often capturing a look or glance that speaks volumes in terms of story. James Laxton’s cinematography draws us further into these moments through handheld camerawork and intimate closeups, playing around with colour and light to evoke certain moods.
The film is also acutely perceptive to the experience of being gay or questioning your sexuality, and is a landmark work in queer cinema because of it. The stolen glances, the typical childhood moments that become even more awkward, the anxiety that comes from trying to figure out if the person you are attracted to is also gay, and the horrifying bullying from other kids who suspect you might be, are all captured here in devastating, unforgettable detail.
Beautifully and evocatively shot, Moonlight is a reflective film, often jumping between scenes and unfolding like a collection of memories, being looked back over and examined for the ripple effect they have had. This is a film that feels both intimate and expansive in the way it captures the story of a life and how it is changed by defining moments along the way, ending on a note that is as blindingly powerful for what it represents as it is for all it leaves unsaid. It’s the best movie of the year.
Moonlight is now playing in limited release at TIFF Bell Lightbox and Varisty Cinemas in Toronto, and will be expanding across Canada in November. Please check local listings and seek it out.