Chiron, the lead character of Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, starts the film as a kid. Then it leaps ahead to when he’s a teenager, and, finally, finds him as a grown man.
Moonlight is made up of three parts, each taking place during a different point in Chiron’s life, as embodied by three different actors who play the character during his rocky path from childhood to adulthood. The two times the film catches up with its protagonist after a several-year gap, you may flinch — and not because the performers (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) aren’t exceptionally gifted with the ability to create an impressive sense of continuity in the character. No, because each jump emphasizes how the passage of time has taught the already-wary Chiron, in different and difficult ways, to close himself off for his own protection. He learns to be hard, to go from shy to nearly silent, to burnish himself to imperviousness to the point where it seems possible he may never be able to let anyone in. Moonlight is a movie about how someone comes to armor himself against vulnerabilities to the point in which he turns his chosen identity into a prison. But it’s a love story too, tender and dark, unfolding across decades, and offering hope that there’s also time for its hero to figure out how to be open again.
Moonlight, which Jenkins' adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is a coming-of-age tale that can bring to mind Boyhood and The Tree of Life, two other movies that found something vast and cinematic in the progression of a child into a man. It occupies a space all its own, between the grounded intimacy of Richard Linklater’s film and the poetic grandeur of Terrence Malick’s. Linklater titled his film Boyhood; Malick put his hero’s developmental years up onscreen alongside footage representing the creation of the universe, so emblematic they felt their ordinary stories could be.
Moonlight stands right alongside them while also serving as a response to the way they so easily presumed the universality of the middle-class Texas childhoods they depicted, ones featuring devoted mothers and less available fathers, whiteness, budding heterosexuality, lawns and tree-lined streets. Chiron’s experiences are unfolded with the same sense of importance and empathy, though they include none of those things — they’re American, but there’s no trace of Americana. He, along with almost everyone who appears onscreen, is black. He’s also gay, and growing up in the unreliable care of his mercurial, crack-addicted mom, Paula (Naomie Harris), in a rough part of Miami.
It’s a community in which, even as a child, he has only an uncertain place. When the boys from his neighborhood test out their toughness on one other by roughhousing, Chiron (Hibbert) walks away. “You want these fools to pick on you every day?” his friend Kevin (Jaden Piner) asks, chasing after him and insisting they try to knock each other down as practice, scrapping as an act of affection. “I knew you wasn’t soft,” Kevin says afterward. Kids pick on Chiron anyway, clocking his nascent sexuality before he even seems to — because, as Paula points out, of “the way he walks,” because he’s not performing masculinity within some very narrow boundaries of what’s considered right. As a teen, played by the angular Sanders, he’s singled out by another boy who senses difference in him like blood in the water, who calls him “gay” in class and shoulder-checks him in the hall.
There’s no trace of nostalgia to Chiron’s lushly filmed youth, but there are flashes of sweetness amidst his painful struggles through a chaotic homelife and bullying at school. There is, for instance, Juan (a standout Mahershala Ali), who discovers young Chiron hiding in a crack house from the boys who’d been chasing him. Juan takes an interest in the near-mute kid, bringing him home for a meal from his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), and, in a euphoric sequence, he later impulsively takes him to the ocean to teach him to swim. Teresa is supportive and warmly maternal, and Juan acts as an occasional father figure to Chiron. But Juan is also the person dealing drugs to Paula, who’s scornful and jealous of his investment in her child (“You going to tell him why the other kids kick his ass?” she asks), calling him out for acting as though he isn’t profiting from the economy that’s enabled her addiction.
Then there’s Kevin (played by Piner, then Jharrel Jerome, and lastly André Holland), with whom Chiron shares confidences, and then kisses, and then punches. He’s the outgoing friend who goes from tussle buddy to — years later, in a scene that’s breathtaking in its uncertainty and sensuality — Chiron’s first lover, the two engaging in a furtive clinch on the beach, the camera lingering on Chiron’s fingers digging into the sand. But Kevin is both more at ease with himself and better at fitting in; he also sleeps with girls. And it’s Kevin who becomes an eventual, reluctant participant in Chiron’s downfall. And then there’s Paula, again, who pulls herself together too late to do anything other than look on, with love and regret, at the dope-slinger in gold grills and mountains of muscle her son becomes — a man signaling with every aspect of his being that he's not to be fucked with, or even simply touched.
“At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be,” Chiron’s told by Juan, who accepts and sees him with startling clarity, even when he’s still a child. Along with Teresa, he is tolerant in a way that no one Chiron’s age seems to be. “You can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
Settling on who you are, or how you want to be seen, has a lot to do with the marks left on you by the people you meet. In this way, there’s so much heartbreak in how Moonlight shows why Chiron comes to fold in on himself instead of flowering, steered by circumstance and fear and pressure to conform to a particular model of manhood that requires him to shut off a part of himself. Moonlight moves for a while in heady bursts, like memories rushing back. But by its final third, it settles into something like the present, in a slowed-down stretch in which Chiron’s heads back to Miami from Georgia to reunite with an old friend. The two men look at where life has led them, and peering at each other try to spot the boys they were underneath, whether their connection still holds, and whether there’s still time to change.
Jenkins’ debut film, the 2008 indie Medicine for Melancholy, was a 24-hour romance (starring Wyatt Cenac!) that dealt with the loneliness of being black in San Francisco's largely white hipster scene. It took Jenkins eight long years to make another movie, but Moonlight is worth the wait — it takes the exploration of race and identity in that promising bow and expands it into this soaring and gorgeous work of cinematic maturity that’s one of the best of the year. The title Boyhood may be taken, but it’s one that would be just as appropriate for this film: It’s a stunningly made testament to the fact that growing up is a universal experience, but we sure as hell don’t all go through it the same way.