Moonlight only deals with traditional narrative in a very vague sense. This “coming of age” story does have a third act structure, but only in the most limited sense. We see our protagonist’s life separated into three chapters based on his various names – “Little” for his childhood (Alex Hibbert), “Chiron” for his teenage years (Ashton Sanders) & “Black” for his manhood (Trevante Rhodes) – to indicate some structural necessity. From there, the film goes off on more of a stream of consciousness style during each section that boils down to our hero’s state of mind. Our hero’s search for identity in a world that pushes him to the side or presents him with potential that’s crushed by the society he’s born into, the people who he was raised by and his own mind set because of all those factors.
This isn’t a narrative with much resolve. There are incidents and crushing emotional points, but they never lead to easy answers. Moonlight director/writer Barry Jenkins takes a page in storytelling from Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and Before trilogy. He allows us to see this man’s life transpire without too much dramatic license. This is less a story and more a series of snapshots in the life of this man coming to terms with who he is and what that means in terms of living. Some may find this to be disappointing or uninteresting. Traditional narrative structure is more commonly satisfying, but rarely gives us the ability to step into someone’s perspective like Moonlight does. Chiron’s crushing disappointments and little victories wouldn’t be as impactful in a traditional narrative.
By seeing all of the small intimate moments of doubt, loneliness and self consciousness in a more grounded fashion, we get a full grasp of how Chiron’s life feels so despondent. There’s an aesthetic reason why each section of his life is shot as it is. Barry Jenkins’ camera placement and lighting allows us to follow every step Chiron takes without interruption. We see from his perspective the change (or lack thereof) in his life by a POV from a car door or literally right behind him as he walks about his life. The setting of Miami removes the glamor, focusing on the poorer neighborhoods that experience little to no change. The moments of him bathed in the neon light more familiar to the vibrant city are contrasted with the truly dark moments of emotional sympathy. His relationship with his mother (played with a glorious emotional complexity by Naomie Harris) gradually breaks from the thin thread it initially had. Chiron lives in this world and it partially crushes him.
Yet, Chiron’s life in Moonlight isn’t one that’s just based in the tragedy a broken environment that crushes Chiron’s will. The beauty of Moonlight is found in its small moments. Moments where his few positive role models – subtly underplayed by Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae – give him some perspective. Both come from this similar uncaring world, but show Chiron that there’s moments of joy to be found. Fleeting, simple joys like swimming or making a good food for other ones. They slip in and out of his life. Yet, their influence is felt, both in behavior and state of mind. This leaves Chiron with a multitude of influence to keep him awake about who he should be. He alone must realize what being Chiron is, even if that person is heavily flawed by the time he grows up.
Unlike the previously mentioned Linklater films that used the same actors over the course of a long period of story, Moonlight had to cast three actors to play one person and make each feel seamless. That’s the more common practice in film, but it’s rarely achieved quite as well as it is here. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes don’t just look similar to create the simplistic illusion of growth. Each carries over and establishes facial ticks and elements of body language that define Chiron as a person and by his three names. From his slouched posture to his quiet demeanor, each actor embodies the key reminders that bring us to firmly think this is the same young man growing to find himself. The same goes for an incredibly crucial character Kevin, who’s growth is much more subtle and hard to manage when reexamining the context of his role in Chiron’s life vs his own life’s problems.
Moonlight elects to give us all this through introspective insight rather than outward narrative structure. This isn’t a film heavily dependent on dramatic reveals as much as it is moments. Moments that live in the brain and stay with us, through wonderful and extremely harsh points that resonate brutally. Even if one doesn’t relate to the specific struggles of Chiron, the moments we see in Moonlight of him simply living give us an extremely close and unflinching look at very primal human moments of discovery and rejection are universal. They might not be satisfying or leave you with definitive answers, but these moments give us pause to empathize with those who live harsh lives, not from a simple societal crumbling POV as much as an unfiltered and brutally honest one. That not only do our encounters affect our lives, but the actions we make based on those encounters. It makes for one of the more uniquely told stories on film this year… and also one of the best.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Bottles of Wine Between Former Friends
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