The director of MOONLIGHT, Barry Jenkins, has a first feature called MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY. I haven’t seen it. I just like the title because it describes what MOONLIGHT did to me: this film is my cure for sadness.
MOONLIGHT follows Chiron, a young man who lives in a rough neighborhood of Miami. We see him during three chapters of his life, during which Chiron is always shy and mainly unspoken. His crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) isn’t much help to his introverted nature. His homosexuality isn’t, either, an attribute which causes various people to harry and persecute him throughout his time on screen. Life isn't all bad, though: as an adolescent, Juan (Mahershala Ali) helps Chiron through various parts of life, while Kevin (André Holland) is a friend to the introverted Chiron as a teenager and as an adult.
“Who is you, Chiron?” It’s a quote that comes from Kevin, and it’s the key question that this film asks. Each of the three chapters here labels him Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and Black (Andre Holland). Little is the developing, tiny version of Chiron who we eventually come to understand in his high school iteration, labeled by his actual name. The final chapter, Black, is a stereotyped version of a black person that Chiron has shaped himself to be over time: he has golden grills, blasts hip-hop music while driving down the street, and even wears various bling items on his freshly bulging body, a literal suit of armor protecting him from the wave of discrimination constantly coming his way. Before this, though, Chiron is a skinny, feeble boy, with a slumped back and reticent personality. This is brought out in the first two performances by Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders respectively, with Trevante Rhodes embodying both “Black” and the Chiron that we know is inside this new persona. And yet we never fully understand Chiron: there is no narration, there is no attempted explanation of his personality or true nature, the closest thing being surreal dream sequences scattered throughout the film that give you a vague view of his mind. This vagueness, this subtlety, is awesome. How many films can we get where the main character himself is an enigma that can be the source of an in-depth discussion? To me, the closest we'll ever get to know Chiron is in his high school iteration; filled with humility and kindness, yet containing a sensual masculinity that will be sparked when needed.
Each aspect of Chiron is further brought out through Barry Jenkins and his wonderful direction. Imagery throughout develops character: Chiron can be trapped behind a fence, being yelled at by his horrendous mother, even walking down the street, and each image always evokes entrapment, while the images are still a wonder to behold on their own. Color is another key aspect of the film, most blatantly with the blinking light that varies in color, a motif that comes as a ten-second intermission between each chapter, but also through the luscious and vivid cinematography of James Laxton, the unsung hero of this film.
The score here is something idiosyncratic and new, yet it always lends to an atmosphere of wonder. The fast-paced rhythm of the string-like instruments, which are played in the high range, adds to a sense of melancholy while also being gorgeous. The music evoked a visceral reaction in me, one that had been building up as a result of the profoundly fascinating story. The plot moved me, but never felt exploitative of my feelings, as if it was playing me (most films would use Naomie Harris’s character, the drug-addicted mother, in an overbearing way to get us to feel sadness, but she’s mainly absent as she would be from Chiron’s life). There’s also a scene in here for everyone; talking to my father leaving the theater, we were both extremely moved by different scenes: me with a quiet and intimate sexual encounter, my father with a scene in which Chiron asks Juan the definition of an offensive word, boosted even more by Mahershala Ali’s brilliant performance. I would call both of these scenes the best the film has to offer, yet I feel that everyone will have their own favorite moment.
I feel like the best way to describe MOONLIGHT is to just describe the ocean, a place that seems to be Chiron’s ideal location in the world. It’s quiet, intimate, isolated, and yet always beautiful, especially in the moonlight entailed in the fitting title. This is a wonderful film, and a must-see.