You aren’t just you. You carry around every person you have ever been, living together simultaneously, and every one of you occasionally gets a moment to poke their head out and have their say. Barry Jenkins’ arresting new drama Moonlight captures the many facets of a young man, all at different points in his life, and while it’s clear that they are all in this life together I daresay I’d be surprised if any one of them would recognize the others in a mirror.
A story told in three parts, Moonlight begins with the story of young “Little” (Alex Hibbert), who runs from the bullies at his school and has no idea why they’re chasing him. Taking refuge in an abandoned building, he comes across a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who shows Little more kindness than his own mother does. His mother (Naomie Harris) is a drug addict whose interest in Little has its limits, and when we meet Little again as a teenager, now called Chiron (Ashton Anders), he’s still wrestling with many of those same struggles at home. At school, however, the bullying has taken on a different tone, and Chiron’s burgeoning awareness of his own homosexuality is leading him into unexpected and startling directions.
Later on, Moonlight will introduce us to “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), the final evolution of Chiron’s personality, and by this point he has transformed into an amalgam of his influences, positive and negative, heroic and tragic. And although the story of Moonlight is punctuated by very important moments in Chiron’s life it’s a not a film that shoves its protagonist into situations for their own sake. Barry Jenkins has written and directed an inspired and empathetic portrait of a child, a young man, and a man who is the sum of his parts.
The marvel of Moonlight is watching these three disparate actors create a complete interpretation of a single individual, more so than perhaps any one actor could have, even had the production taken years (a la Boyhood). The transformations inherent to the human experience are too significant, it seems, to be presented any other way. Chiron is a man repeatedly transmogrified by his own pain, and all of these mutations seem to be created as defensive mechanisms. From the fragile boy to the gaunt teenager, taking up as little space as possible to avoid danger, followed eventually by a mountain of muscle, projecting more force than he ever hopes to use.
Moonlight is a lovingly filmed, spectacularly acted motion picture, daringly written as a series of meaningful vignettes that would have each been haunting on their own. It’s that rare film that seems to wholly capture a human experience, in all of its tragedy and wonder.