Moonlight (M). Director: Barry Jenkins. Starring: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes. 111 minutes
Moonlight is like many films you've seen before, and like none of them.
It's a coming of age story, where the formation of identity takes place amid the often painful progressions of family and social life. It's a story about disaffected Black American characters living in a poor neighbourhood, their lives attended by drugs and violence. It's also an elegant entry into the oeuvre of queer cinema, evoking the sensory and emotional experience of sexual awakening.
The combination of these elements, and the creative vision applied to them by Black American auteur Barry Jenkins, make Moonlight a unique and highly affecting proposition.
The film is divided into three acts, each finding the character Chiron (played by Hibbert, then Sanders, then Rhodes) at different ages and stages of formation. The first is titled 'Little', and finds him as a bullied preteen and the son of a loving but drug addicted single mother (Harris). He is taken under the wing of Juan (Ali), a formidable drug dealer and unexpectedly tender surrogate for his own absent father.
In 'Chiron' he is a teenager, still bullied, still neglected by his tortured mother, and at the same time absorbing the flirtations of a male peer. This act ends in complex, devastating tragedy, setting the scene for 'Black', where the once scrawny Chiron is a muscled man in his mid-20s, physically transformed but still closely guarding the same emotional flames lit during his childhood.
The names of the first and third acts refer to nicknames bestowed upon Chiron by others; they are signposts on the road of his progressions through life.
To describe the film as gentle would not quite be accurate. It is certainly understated, and eschews sensationalism. When a pivotal character dies, presumably violently, it happens not only off screen but between acts, and is later referred to only obliquely. The spectres of gun violence and drug use are invoked but rarely (or never) displayed.
"Bursts of actual violence or dramatic confrontation are rare. Where they occur it is their emotional content that is most confronting."
At the same time the chaos embedded in these characters' world is made clear through physical symbols — young Chiron flees from bullies into an abandoned drug den, where he finds a used syringe and holds it up to the light like a talisman — and by cinematographer James Laxton, whose camera variously trails and circles the characters or, during emotionally piquant moments, locks onto their faces, where they stare down its barrel, conduits for grief or desperation or lust or rage or hopeful joy.
Bursts of actual violence or dramatic confrontation are rare. Where they occur it is their emotional content that is most confronting.
Indeed viewers primed by Hollywood to anticipate such heavy handed phenomena will come to realise that it is on the site of the characters' complex emotions where the violence and drama of Moonlight truly plays out. They strive to process these emotions within themselves and to articulate them to each other.
This is particularly challenging for the resolutely taciturn Little/Black/Chiron. His is a journey to find and be at peace with his authentic self, within the context of his relationships to others for whom the struggle is just as fierce.
Tim Kroenert is editor of Eureka Street.