Moonlight ★★★★

I am still processing this film at the time of this review.

Moonlight is about a African American boy / man, growing up in Miami’s slums. He is shy and awkward, and nearly cripplingly shy. His mother is a drug addict, his father isn’t in the picture, and as he grows up he struggles to accept his sexuality as a gay man.

Needless to say, this isn’t the type of story that graces multiplexes very often. The movie is given a delicate and humane touch by its screenwriter and director, Barry Jenkins. The story is told in 3 different segments during Chiron’s life. The first segment takes place when his a child of maybe 9 years old. Already his schoolmates recognize that he is different, and the torment for it. He meets a powerful drug dealer that takes him in and cares for him.

I was skeptical of their relationship for a long while. I don’t know if I have been conditioned by pop culture, or if there is some deeply buried racism in my character. I like to think it is the former. Anyway, the movie does not show its hand for a long while. The drug dealer’s name is Juan. Juan has a lady friend named Teresa. Both of these performances are amazing. Chiron is looking for a father figure, and he thinks he has found one in Juan. That is until he realizes what Juan does for a living, and how that impacts his mother and his way of life.

There is a scene at the dinner table where Chiron asks Juan what a faggot is. I have to say, I was dumbfounded at how introspective and intelligent / kind his answer was. I don’t think I could have answered that question as well as this drug dealer did. I love the response, but I feel as if that is something that the screenwriter would write, and not something that the character of Juan would say in real life.

I am putting myself out here with this review. I hope I don’t come off as a horrible person.

The end of the dinner table scene is one of the more heartbreaking moments in film this year. Juan has to wrestle with who he is, and the decisions he has made that put him in that position. He has more than most in the community, but he also loses something that he had grown very close to. It is a powerful moment.

The second section of the film has Chiron at high school age. He is now a tall, exceedingly skinny young man. He is starting to understand his sexual urges, but still too timid to act on them. He is continuously bullied at school. Juan is no longer a part of his life. His mother’s addictions have gotten worse, to the point that she isn’t really caring for him at all. Quite the opposite really. Chiron’s only friends are Teresa and his best friend, Kevin.

Kevin is a cool kid, or at least he tries to be. But he likes Chiron, and protects him in his own way. Chiron thinks that there may be more than plutonic friendship between himself and Kevin, and that belief proves to be true. Kevin is his first love, and his first sexual experience. The scene is a tender and tastefully shot love scene. It’s two young men, each one as confused as the other, acting on impulse and curiosity. Both are afraid of being rejected, and unlike most heterosexual relationships, they are afraid of being ostracized. If either of them misread what they thought the signs were, it won’t just be an awkward moment. It could very likely be life defining mistake, and it could even be physically and of course emotionally and psychologically dangerous.

This is why later in the segment, when Kevin assaults Chiron, to protect himself in a way, the worst hurt isn’t the physical beating. It is another father figure (in the Freudian sense) or another person that he cares about, actively doing something to hurt him. Everyone that Chiron opens up to, which is very hard for him to do, hurts him in some way or another.

Chiron does seek his revenge, and this proves to be an action that will have serious consequences for the next 10 plus years of his life. He attacks the school bully, and gets hauled off by the police.

The third chapter is shocking at first. Chiron is now an adult man. He is probably in his late 20’s. He is no longer the shy, skinny kid. Quite the opposite really. He is a massive mountain of a man. He apparently spent a good amount of time in jail for assaulting the bully. While in jail he apparently started lifting weights. I would be lying if I said that I believed this physical transformation. There was just too much difference in the physicality of the teen Chiron to the adult Chiron.

While in jail he also met a drug dealer that put him on the corner selling drugs once they were out of the joint. Chiron work his way up from there until he too was a major player in the drug game. Just like the dealer that cared for him when he was young. Chiron’s mom is now in rehab. She regrets her past, and fears for her sons future. He is living the life of big time drug dealer. He has the car, the house, the godl teeth, everything. The only thing he doesn’t have is anyone to care for him.

One night he gets a call from Kevin inviting him to come around and they can catch up. Chiron meets up with him. Kevin cannot believe the man that Chiron has become. Kevin knows him in a way that no one else does. He knows his secrets and desires. Kevin thinks that this gangster isn’t Chiron at all. The thing is, Chiron still doesn’t know who he is. He has never been able to embrace himself as a complete person. He is always fronting, or putting on a mask of some kind to hide who he really is. He has even been able to fool himself in the iteration of his story.

The meeting is awkward like all post high school reconnects are. There is an underlying desperation and unhealthy curiosity to these type of meetups. I don’t think the movie explicitly states this, but I felt it. The third section of the film is mainly one long conversation. It is fascinating how raw and power the film is at this point, as these two men reconnect and share their stories. We get to see and hear how they have changed, and more importantly, how they haven’t changed. When Chiron confesses that no other man has touched him like Kevin did, and that he hasn’t touched anyone since, it is horribly sad moment. He is such a lost soul, who never had anyone that really cared for him. Every person that he came in contact with hurt him. Either intentionally or unintentionally.

The mixing of race, class, and sexual orientation issues confuse and complicate the narrative in a way that feels more real than any movie in recent history. It is this probably why when I feel the movie drifting off into constructed drama, those moments ring really false. This is also probably the reason that this film is being compared to last year’s Carrol. The film share several themes, even of the settings, periods, and particulars couldn’t be more different.

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