On the day I saw the movie, I booked my ticket in the morning, and as I got progressively dog-tired at work I was thinking to myself, I could do with some fun fluffy movie right now, not yet another Oscar-season glumfest. In the end though, I’m glad I saw it because, while sombre and sad Moonlight is also a lyrical, immersive, compassionate and tender look at an experience that usually doesn’t get much attention in the media. My only problem was that, in my tired state, I found some of the street slang hard to follow, but in the end, this is a movie that mostly tells its story through the visuals, music, the actors’ expressions and the stretches of silence that convey so much.
Moonlight is a story of Chiron, a quiet and shy boy from the rough neighbourhood in Miami, divided into three chapters of his life as a boy, teenager and young man. At the start of the film, Chiron is chased by the neighbourhood kids and takes refuge in an empty house, where he’s found by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a charismatic local drug dealer who sees something in the kid. He takes Chiron home where he and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) feed him and let him spend the night before taking the boy back to his mother Paula (Naomi Harris, as far away from the glamorous world of James Bond as possible), an abusive drug addict who showers Chiron with affection one minute then screams at him the next. Juan and Teresa become something of a surrogate family for Chiron, despite the messed up situation where Juan is selling the drugs that destroy Paula. The scene in which Juan teaches Chiron to float on his back, with its intimate cinematography, is one of the most beautiful and poetic scenes in the film.
While still in the first chapter, Chiron, sitting at the table in Juan and Teresa’s house, asks what a faggot is, and whether he is one, a question that immediately sucks all the air out of the room onscreen, and the real-life movie theatre. Juan carefully dismantles the slur before the boy, but his supportive attitude does little to dismantle the misery and confusion over his identity that follow Chiron into his teenage years and adulthood, when everything else in his environment teaches him to repress repress repress. His issues intensify in the middle chapter as Chiron grows into a timid scrawny adolescent; things get worse at home with his mother, the bullies at school get more vicious, and his feelings about his sexuality reach peak confusion when he develops a crush on a classmate who treats him kindlier than others. Without revealing too much, the last chapter of the story is the saddest of all, with Chiron fulfilling his destiny in a way that initially feels jarring but which is depressingly realistic, reminding you that a revenge fantasy that feels satisfying and draws audience claps in the moment (as it did in my session) has to come up against the reality in a film that’s committed to honesty.
Moonlight moves at a leisurely, meditative pace, slowly building the scenes and touching on issues of gender, race, isolation, sexuality and identity in an organic way that simply happens during the course of examining a life, rather than waving them in your face. With bold cinematography and stellar acting across the board (the transitions between three separate actors playing Chiron are seamless), Moonlight is both graceful and brutal.