Moonlight is the most powerful film of this year’s Best Picture nominees. It is a coming-of-age story about a man who discovers his sexuality. It is a film about the struggle to discover one’s identity in the face of the bullying and rampant discrimination by the normal people. It’s another strong addition to the LGBT canon and deserves a place with films like Brokeback Mountain and Carol.
The film is divided into three chapters titled “Little”, “Chiron” and “Black”. Chiron is black and gay, a dual disadvantage in a society where race and gender matters. The movie starts with a young Chiron running away from the bullies and hiding in ruined house where Juan, a compassionate drug dealer (played exquisitely by Mahershala Ali) discovers him. Chiron is a fatherless kid under the care of a drug addict mother. He is called a faggot by his peers, and is routinely harassed by them. Juan plays a father figure to the young Chiron. In a powerful close to the first chapter, we find the macho dealer weep quietly when he realizes that he is the one selling drug to Chiron’s mother and making him a de facto orphan. Juan perhaps is Chiron’s future and Chiron is Juan’s past. There is a sublime tenderness in the scenes where Chiron and Juan spend time together.
The film is about an outsider’s angst and pain. Chiron turns from a skinny kid bullied by all and sundry, to a macho hunk of a drug dealer. But he remains an outsider, a faggot. What’s a faggot, he asks Juan once. Juan answers a faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad. How do I know that I am gay, little Chiron asks; Juan says, you just do. The film is rich in such tender moments, real dialogues. The beach where Juan takes Chiron to swim is the one where Chiron discovers his identity for the first time with Kevin. Kevin is a young boy who grows with Chiron and helps him realize his true sexuality – something that is fraught with danger in 1980s America. The film has only one moment of sexual intimacy, a fleeting moment between Kevin and Chiron. The next encounter between them is violent and brutal dictated by the bullies who feel threatened by Chiron’s silent outsider with alternate sexuality. Chiron doesn’t resist and is beaten badly. He returns to take revenge, and the society hits back. In the last chapter of the movie, Chiron is a grown up man still searching for love and identity.
The film has three unknown actors playing Chiron at different stages of life. Alex Hibbert as little Chiron is magnificent. Ashton Sanders as teen Chiron is a revelation. He conveys multiple emotions with the way he looks, walks, and speaks. Here is an actor in the tradition of Montgomery Clift, that master of playing moody, sensitive men. Trevante Rhodes plays adult Chiron with aching sensitivity. The romance between Kevin and Chiron is better and real than the other romance in this year’s La La Land between Seb and Mia.
MOONLIGHT conveys ache and hope, love and longing in a masterful way. It is a movie about gradual discovery and acceptance of one’s true identity. Barry Jenkins has delivered this year’s masterpiece, the film that should be awarded the Best Picture Oscar for its tender treatment of an audacious subject matter. Cinematography by James Laxton is the winner here; the grace and fluidity of the camera work gives the film its seductive tenderness when looking at the intimate portrayals.
Moonlight is a film that respects the intelligence of its audiences. It speaks through its silences, breaks stereotypes, and dismantles boundaries of cinema.