Moonlight is a drama that’s as frustrating as it is innovative in its storytelling decisions.
By now, you’re likely to have heard some of the festival buzz surrounding Barry Jenkins’ second feature and his follow-up to 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy. Moonlight is a far more ambitious film that follows the relationship between two boys from their childhood until decades later when they meet again, told over three key moments in their lives and separated into three distinct chapters.
It mainly focuses on Chiron (Alex Hibbert), a small, shy and mostly silent young boy, growing up in a poor, crime-ridden section of Miami, whom we meet as he’s being chased by a group of bigger boys into an abandoned housing complex. He’s saved by local drug-dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), but since the boy won’t talk, he’s taken to Juan’s friend Teresa (Janelle Monae) until he’ll tell them where he lives. Chiron actually lives with his drug-addled mother Paula (Naomie Harris), which may be why he’s not so keen to go back. During this same period of time, he first meets Kevin, one of his few schoolmates who teaches him to stand up to the bullies.
Years later, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) and Kevin are teenagers in high school, and things are still tough for Chiron on all accounts, which leads him to a decision he’ll regret for a long time. Before this happens, he and Kevin have a sexual encounter on the beach, forcing Chiron to come to terms with his own sexuality.
There’s something innovative and original about the way Jenkins chose to tell Chiron’s story, although the first two sections aren’t nearly as compelling as the third, making it feel like the last act doesn’t earn where the story ends up going. Probably the most frustrating aspect of Jenkins’ film is the way the first section ends rather abruptly and vaguely, then just as things are getting interesting for Chiron at the end of the second chapter, it again cuts forward ten more years.
Without giving things away, something really dramatic happens at the end of that second chapter that will forever change Chiron’s life, but instead of showing how that change happens, we cut forward to the older Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes), now dealing drugs in Atlanta under the name “Black,” a nickname given to him by Kevin earlier. His mother has now been put into rehab and he hasn’t seen Kevin since high school, but a couple of phone calls lead to him facing the two people who had the biggest impact on his earlier life.
Moonlight is very much a movie of moments, as each section has a number of memorable sequences, such as an early sexual encounter between Chiron and Kevin on the beach that will play a larger part later. While we’ve seen plenty of films about first romances and sexual encounters, there haven’t been any handled in quite the honest and straight-forward way shown here.
It’s clearly a very different film from Jenkins’ debut, not only because there are more than two characters, but also because he shows his growth as a filmmaker in trying to create something far more cinematic, although some of the choices, like the use of a handheld camera and having the camera crazily circling the characters in the first chapter, can be off-putting.
The third chapter is clearly the strongest of the three and also where Jenkins excels, mainly because so much of it focuses on two people talking, just like his earlier film. Here, we get some resolution between Chiron and his mother, now staying at a rehab clinic, but more importantly, he reconnects with Kevin after the incident ten years earlier.
It’s often hard to relate to any of the characters in Jenkins’ film, because few people who see it will have the type of experiences Jenkins brings to the table in what presumably is at least partially an autobiographical film. Up until Chiron and Kevin meet as adults, Jenkins plays around too much with the question of Chiron’s sexuality without resolving it in a satisfying way. It’s also a shame that Mahershala Ali’s Juan, the most interesting aspect of the movie’s first section, vanishes after that chapter in the young Chiron’s life ends. It’s somewhat telling that Ali played a similar character in Justin Tipping’s Kicks, which ends up being a far superior film in terms of storytelling and filmmaking.
Jenkins’ sophomore film offers innovative but flawed storytelling, and Moonlight won’t connect with everyone who sees it, even if there are strong dramatic moments, especially in the last chapter, that might make it worthwhile to revisit a second time.
Moonlight opens October 21, following it playing the Toronto International Film Festival and 54th New York Film Festival.