BFI London Film Festival: Moonlight

Directed by Barry Jenkins

Starring Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland
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by Joanna Orland

Poignant, beautiful and relevant, Moonlight avoids falling into the melodramatic trap that it so easily could.

Moonlight follows Chiron through three stages of his young life as he comes to terms with his sexual identity.  In 1980’s Miami, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is merely a child, different from the others at school.  His junkie mother (Naomie Harris) bullies him at home so he turns to his pseudo mentor, local drug kingpin Juan (Mahershala Ali) for the guidance and emotional support he can’t find at home or at school.  Juan along with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) take in Chiron as though he’s one of the family – often sitting around the dinner table, having conversations more emotionally open than the very quiet Chiron can have elsewhere.

The second stage of Chiron’s youth explored in Moonlight is his high school years.  The transition of actors in the lead role is impeccable as Ashton Sanders’ Chiron brings the soul of the character through subtle facial similarities.  Still being bullied by his peers, even more so than in his younger years, this is the stage the truly defines and forms his version of masculinity and sexuality.  His relationship with his one childhood friend Kevin is key in Chiron’s coming-of-age tale, for better or for worse.

The third stage of Chiron explored in Moonlight is the character as a man – almost unrecognizable from the innocent and vulnerable youth of the previous stages.  Even the casting is at first jarring as Chiron’s appearance has changed drastically.  Trevante Rhodes’ portrayal of the eldest Chiron thrives through its subtleties.  Chiron’s soul is once again carried over through the actor’s eyes and minute facial expressions.  This is a beautiful understated portrayal of one character by three separate actors.

Barry Jenkins’ telling of Chiron’s story is very restrained in its depiction.  This restraint is what makes this movie powerful and feel like a true insight into the life of an African-American gay man discovering his sexuality.  This character study is intimate in its portrayal with Chiron’s stoic silence and flickering eyes speaking louder than any words could.

Rather than revel in the potential despair of the subject matter, Jenkins shows the beauty and potential in Chiron’s life.  This unique film will have universal appeal to anyone who’s ever struggled with identity or loneliness – it resonates in my mind weeks after seeing it.  It is an absolutely remarkable film.



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