Moonlight’s status as an award-season champion – it’s already taken a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture (Drama) – rising above much starrier, more expensive films, is at odds with its quiet grace. This is a film of gentle moments and pregnant silences that tells a story the vast majority won’t directly relate to, but does so in such a way that everyone can feel its pain.
The second film by writer-director Barry Jenkins (his first, 2008’s Medicine For Melancholy, was well-reviewed but not widely seen) visits three stages in the life of Chiron, a boy growing up in Miami with his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris). Sensitive and shy, Chiron is teased for being gay, which he is. At nine, he’s barely aware of what this means; as a teenager he’s fighting furiously against it, while also nervously exploring it; as an adult he’s buried his true self so deep he’s almost suffocated it completely. Almost.
The authenticity with which Jenkins tells Chiron’s story makes it surprising that this isn’t autobiographical (it’s actually based on a play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney). The emotions of Chiron’s journey are huge, but Jenkins plays them all softly. Chiron, at all ages, rarely speaks, more often telling his story through wordless moments, as he watches those around him – a sympathetic drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) who befriends him as a boy; a childhood friend who reappears at every stage of Chiron’s life – and tries to understand how they live in confidence and relative happiness, which he cannot find.
He’s ever watchful of the world but too afraid to take part in it, only allowing himself fleeting moments of freedom and trust in others before curling back into his shell. When he does speak, Jenkins’ script makes every word count. The heartbreaking question, “What’s a f*****t?” uttered by a nine-year-old speaks volumes about how the world sees him and what he doesn’t see of himself.
The three actors playing Chiron – Alex R Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes – serve Jenkins majestically. It’s far too early in the year to call Moonlight the best of 2017, but it would be among the finest of any year.