London Film Festival 2016: Moonlight dir. Barry Jenkins
Moonlight has to be one of the biggest highlights of this year’s London Film Festival. The film follows the life of the shy, young Chiron as he grows into a man still figuring out his identity in 1980s Miami.
The film is split into three parts, titled after the various names and nicknames people give to Chiron over the course of his life, following him as a child, a teenager and finally, an adult. Moonlight is an intensely lonely film, about an unending sense of being an outsider. This is emphasised by the various closeup shots of Chiron’s face, alone and slightly queerer than others. He has little to no friends his age, just Kevin, who he grows up with through high school.
In part one, or “Little”, we are introduced first not to Chiron, but Juan (Mahershala Ali), a masculine drug dealer who runs into the small but tough Chiron (a stoic and quiet performance from Alex Hibbert) hiding from bullies. He brings Chiron home to his girlfriend Teresa (electric lady Janelle Monae in her onscreen debut), who are warm and welcoming, allowing him to stay overnight. Later on, Juan brings Chiron back to his proper home, where we are introduced to Ma (in an Oscar-worthy performance from Naomie Harris), whose stark, darkly lit house contrasts Juan’s, a sense of tension and danger hanging in the air. Ma is a drug-addled single mother, and with Chiron growing up in a household of countless boyfriends, abuse and neglect, it’s no wonder he takes an immediate preference to Juan. In a poignant scene, Juan takes Chiron to the ocean and teaches him to swim, first letting him float and then letting him paddle. There is a strong onscreen bond between the two, and Juan becomes a father figure and model for Chiron to take after. The ocean ends up becoming a recurring symbol throughout the rest of the film, perhaps metaphorically representing the fluidity of identity. Juan is a complex character, unsure how much of a paternal role he should be taking. Juan finds out that along the drug chain, Ma happens to be getting drugs from him, and he becomes morally confused as to whether he should be stepping in, as he has no obligations to Chiron, or legal responsibility, as reiterated by a very high Ma. But he’s as good a father as any, responding to the young Chiron’s question of ‘what’s a faggot’ with a nuanced and extremely forward thinking view.
Jump ahead a decade and we’re in part 2, titled ‘Chiron’. Chiron (Ashton Sanders) goes to high school, still an outcast and keeping to himself. By this point, Ma has become a complete wreck, disheveled, constantly exhausted, and assaulting Chiron for money. Chiron still ends up staying at Teresa’s a lot, who remains more a mother to him than Ma ever was, and they bond over shared loss in Juan’s death. At one point, she shows him how to make a bed properly, while chiding him for not knowing how, and amidst the film’s realistic approach, it’s a relief that it also possesses moments of tenderness as this. Chiron’s best friend remains Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who’s just as confused in his teenage years – chasing skirts and figuring out who his friends are. Kevin ends up the catalyst that changes the course of Chiron’s entire life, becoming Chiron’s first (and only) sexual experience. The day after, while attempting to stay on the good side of the school bullies, Kevin is forced into punching Chiron, much to his shock and disappointment. As Kevin tells Chiron to stay down, Chiron gets back up again and again with grim determination, and Kevin has no choice but to keep taking him down at the behest of the bullies. This is Chiron’s breaking point, warping the friendship between the two of them, and he attacks one of the bullies in class one morning, completely unexpectedly, and is hauled off by the police to an unknown fate, with Kevin left in wide-eyed horror.
Part 3 (‘Black’, Kevin’s nickname for Chiron, now played by Trevante Rhodes), opens on Chiron waking up in a dark room with dim lighting. Chiron has shed the physical shell of his youth and models his look after Juan, imitating the same earrings, musculature, gold teeth as well as his profession. He’s moved away from Miami, spends the wee hours of the morning working out at home, puts on a tough front when speaking to his dealers, and performs the role of stereotypical black masculinity. But most of this is a facade, and inside, he’s still hurting, reeling from the events of his youth. Chiron is no longer living with Ma, instead visiting her in a recovering addicts’ home. Naomie Harris looks absolutely bedraggled and haggard in the final part of the triptych, tired, regretful and repentant when Chiron visits her. Chiron’s history with her may be troubled, but ultimately, he forgives her, showing a sense of maturity somewhat absent in his teens. The film ends with a nervous Chiron deciding to meet up with Kevin again (André Holland), catching up after the lost years. Kevin has taken a different path, still in Miami, becoming a chef at a small diner, married with kids. When Chiron enters the diner, it’s fascinating that it’s the first time throughout the entire film the audience sees Caucasians at all. In any case, the two meet up, catch up over Kevin’s ‘chef’s special’ and a bottle of wine, and it’s as if they never left. Chiron gives Kevin a ride home, unsure what’s supposed to happen next. Kevin lives in a flat near the beach where the two kissed in their teens, jogging memories and emotions old. But Moonlight is no erotica film, and never crosses into the vulgar. Chiron follows Kevin back home, finally confesses his feelings for him, that he was the only one he ever was intimate with, and the two sit on the couch, talking for what seems like a lifetime, and the film ends on a smile.
Moonlight is one of my favourites films so far at the festival, and dare I say, the year. It’s thoughtful, natural and much needed exploration of queer and black identity, with powerful performances from the extremely talented cast. Much of its brilliance comes from director Barry Jenkins’ lingering shots, allowing the camera to focus on characters for a beat, letting the audience have some time to ponder the inner workings of that character’s mind. There is a beauty in the quietude where there is more to the silence than the conversation. Jenkins has crafted a masterful period piece that will most likely last, helped in part by Nicholas Britell’s achingly emotive soundtrack. This is a must see film, and we absolutely recommend catching it in some way.
Moonlight plays at various venues during the London Film Festival. Tickets are sold out.