Moonlight is a coming-of-age movie, chronicling the life of a young black man, and the problems he faces as he tries to forge his identity in the unforgiving environs of his Miami neighbourhood.
We first meet Chiron as ‘Little’ (Alex Hibbert). He is a quiet, introverted boy, preyed upon by bullies and neglected at home. Salvation comes in the unlikely form of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug-dealer, who assumes a fatherly role in Little’s life, and whose softer side is a welcome nuance, so often missing from the cartoon villainy of on-screen criminals. He recognises Little’s vulnerability, and seeks to help him out: teaches him to swim, reassures the boy about his sexuality. He has a conscience too, and is clearly affected when Little’s mum (Naomie Harris) points out his responsibility for her neglectful parenting: he supplies the crack that renders her incapable. Hibbert’s performance is achingly good in this first third of the film: he doesn’t articulate his neediness, but its plain for all to see. He’s so full of hope and potential; we don’t want to witness his pain.
The second section of the film details Chiron’s teenage years, and Ashton Sanders takes over the lead role. It’s a seamless transition: this version of Chiron is less open, more furtive, but his neediness is just as naked as it ever was. He’s still being bullied, and Juan is no longer around – although he does still see Teresa (Janelle Monáe), Juan’s erstwhile girlfriend. He’s less confused about his sexuality, though just as incapable of expressing himself, and far too dependent on his one friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). It’s difficult to watch this sweet young man harden himself against the outside world; heartbreaking to see his future narrowing before our eyes.
In his third and final incarnation, Chiron – now known as ‘Black’ – is played by Trevante Rhodes. His transformation is absolute: the events of the past have shaped him in Juan’s mould – clearly, he’s chosen to emulate the strongest, most positive male role-model in his life. He’s a trapper now, selling the very drugs that blighted his own youth. But he’s still Chiron, still kind and inarticulate, still just the same inside. But he’s taken control – sort of – and he’s no longer quite so vulnerable when he meets up with Kevin again.
This is an affecting movie, a personal tale so precisely told that it shines a light on a common ill. This is not just Chiron’s story – it is the story of so many boys. It articulates everything that Chiron can not. And if the ending feels abrupt (and it does; I was startled when the credits rolled), that’s the only criticism that I have of this fine piece of work.