It’s always nice when a film explores seldom acknowledged and often completely untouched subject matters. The best films and the best actors aren’t afraid to enlighten. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, is as unique a coming of age story that can be found in cinema. Exploring themes such as homophobia, bullying, and existentialism, it is undoubtedly a story that has power and value.
The film tells the story of a boy, who becomes a teen, and then a man. The boy (Alex R. Hibbert) is a quiet child who is struggling with being bullied and whose mother (Naomie Harris) is a drug addict. He is eventually taken in by a caring drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend (Janelle Monae) who become his mentors. By the time he becomes a teen (Ashton Sanders), his social issues have only compounded as he continues to battle with his sexuality and his relationship to his more popular best friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). By the time he has reconnected with Kevin as a man (Trevante Rhodes), he has become a drug dealer himself and is still attempting to come to terms with his own identity.
Every performance in Moonlight is transcendent. The three actors who portray the lead character, Chiron, do so with poetic, yet gut wrenching depth that makes the character both endearing and heroic. Mahershala Ali brings soul and a calming, nuanced wisdom as Chiron’s young mentor, Juan. Naomi Harris is equally brilliant as Chiron’s emotionally abusive mother although the character does feel a bit like a drama film cliche.
But Moonlight is not without its flaws. As a narrative, it never quite flows. The film is constructed into segments centered on each stage in Chiron’s life, but in doing so, a lot gets left off the table in its overall presentation. The segment about his childhood feels like it ends too soon, while the climactic scenes about his adulthood feel like an overall footnote. As a result, sensational characters like Mahershala Ali’s Juan are underutilized and many experiences that could help shape the character once we’ve seen him mold into an adult are left to quick exposition or mere speculation.
The performances allow us to see where Chrion’s journey takes him, but because of the abrupt shifts in narrative, we never truly experience it. The exception is the middle segment which easily feels like a story which has a beginning middle and end, but the rest feels like a television season where we’re missing episodes. It doesn’t take much away from an overall splendid film with wonderful acting and beautiful cinematography, but it did leave me wanting just a little more from its compelling story.
FINAL GRADE: B