We first meet Chiron in the midst of a frantic haze. Pursued by a number of schoolyard bullies whose intentions are obviously hostile, we watch the youngster desperately crawl through a gap in an open fence and sprint towards an abandoned apartment complex in the distance. Once inside, he stops to catch his breath, while his hunters take up external positions and begin throwing stones towards the flat their quarry now occupies.
Only then, as the frenzied camera begins to calm, are we allowed to finally concentrate on Chiron himself. He’s a boy, no older than 10 years of age, wide-eyed and withdrawn. We hear his heart palpitate wildly, a reaction to the adrenaline currently pulsating through his body, but what strikes us immediately is the sadness that silently lingers in the air around him, as both subject and spectator try to understand the rejection that has left Chiron so isolated from his peers who wait outside.
Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ brilliant sophomore effort, is a film that takes many forms – serving as both a domestic drama and a coming of age tale. But fundamentally, it functions as a daring dissection of identity. Set against the urban destitution of Miami’s inner-city neighbourhoods during the 1980s, the story is structured as a narrative triptych that shadows Chiron (perfectly played as a boy, a teen and an adult by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) across three pivotal periods of his life, as he navigates a world where weakness should be supressed for the sake of one’s own masculinity.
Growing up in a broken home under the oppressive glare of his mother (Naomie Harris, overplaying the aggression as a compulsively confrontational crack addict more often concerned with where her next fix is coming from than the wellbeing of her son), Chiron – nicknamed “Little” by his classmates – soon finds solace in the company of Teresa (Janelle Monáe, making her debut in what is sadly a sorely underdeveloped role) and her boyfriend Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer with an unexpectedly compassionate demeanour that provides the youngster with vital paternal support; offering parental guidance where normally there would be none, as shown in a particularly touching early sequence that sees him teach Chiron to swim.Juan’s enduring influence on Chiron’s life is most visible in the film’s final third, when “Little” has become “Black”, a gangbanger running drugs in Atlanta: his muscular physique and intimidating appearance almost identical to that of his surrogate father. But by contrast, Chiron’s macho image is more of a guise, one he tragically feels he must perpetuate to those around him in an attempt to mask his own vulnerability; the fact that he is gay.
It is while he’s still a boy, however, that Chiron first registers his sexuality. A play fight on the school field with his best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner, inhabiting the role alongside Jharrel Jerome and André Holland respectively), captured with rousing tenderness, reveals a spark of attraction that will ignite in later life. In the moment however, all it bares to “Little” is a tortured confusion that he cannot yet comprehend.
With a melancholic air reminiscent of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend or Todd Haynes’ Carol, Jenkins charts Chiron’s passage into adulthood as a journey of both self-discovery and acceptance. By the time we encounter him as a teen, Chiron has been compelled to conceal his sexual identity as a necessity to survive the aggressive environment that encircles his existence. Yet he remains reticent – Sanders’ expertly contained performance defined by an acutely understated loneliness – and as such his contemporaries continue to treat him as a target for their abuse.
So refined is Jenkins’ storytelling that there are instances when his cool, crisp style eclipses the substance of his writing: James Laxton’s continually active lens sometimes failing to find its focus. Where the director excels though is in his treatment of his central character. Crucially, Moonlight avoids pontificating on how Chiron should live his life, opting instead to reflect, with a perceptive insight, upon the devastating realities faced by those searching for empathy in a society that favours prejudice.
When Chiron returns to Miami and reconnects with Kevin, the moments of intimacy they’ve shared in the past are memories both have been forced to set aside. The yearning we discern from their stares and silences however, show that an attraction still burns between them. Attitudes towards the conclusion are likely to be mixed. And certainly, given the weight of the issue and constraints of the run time, it feels as if some further considerations may have been left unsaid. But Jenkins’ message is clear: the Chiron we see at end may be different to the one we met at the beginning, but his circumstances haven’t changed. He is still trapped, held captive not by his sexuality, but by his surroundings.