Moonlight has been making critical maelstroms in the independent film world since its debut at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals in September, two months ahead of its November 3rd wide release date. Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, by Tarell Alvin McCraney, this tripartite film seeks to chart a queer black man from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. It marks Barry Jenkins' return to the Philadelphia Film Festival after his 2008 feature Medicine for Melancholy hit the screens here first.
Opening to a full theater of patrons at the Prince Theater in Center City, the director of PFF introduced the film with the gentle reminder that films like these "live and die by word of mouth." But I'm not so sure that Moonlight is suffering from a hype deficit. With a 99/100 score on Metacritic making it the site's third–highest rated film of all time and its first week earnings giving it the highest per theater average gross of any film this year, Moonlight seems to be doing just fine.
Chiron is the silent centerpiece of the film, the protagonist who spans the entire two hours of the film without speaking more than what seems like 200 words. Put simply, it's a film about being alive while black, gay and poor. It's a character study deeply entangled in the societal ills that weigh on a person's psyche and form their fears and desires. It's about the cruel passage of time and the barriers we must put up, washed in the blue lights of the Florida housing projects.
Moonlight begins with Chiron running from boys who are chasing him across vacant Miami lots, as they shout slurs and corner him with projectiles. They call him Little. They call him faggot. He locks himself in an abandoned motel only to be rescued by by Juan (played by Mahershala Ali), the block's resident drug dealer. Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), become his guardians and take him in on the nights when his crack–addicted mother, who gets her supplies from Juan's men, becomes too belligerent.
His childhood is one of fierce independence and identity formation in a vacuum. The most poignant scenes are those of a skinny Chiron coming home to an empty house and warming up his bathwater on the stove, or getting bored playing football with all the other boys and leaving to walk alone. He seems to have all the unconscious identifiers of a child who is gay from a young age–the walk, the talk, the overzealous dancing in gym class–only he doesn't recognize it. He finds himself asking Juan and Teresa "What's a faggot?" since it's a question so seared into his mind through ridicule repetition. Chiron's developmental years sketch a brutally truthful picture of a youth coming into his homosexuality, where everyone's telling him that he's gay except himself.
The second chapter of the film in Chiron's adolescence looks more critically at the cycle of poverty, abuse, community unrest and mass incarceration in America during the War on Drugs. It sees him in an underfunded school amongst violent classmates who continue to view his passive silence as needing masculine correction. A sexual encounter blossoms and wilts with tragic transience.
The final form of Chiron we see as an adult is one of emotional wounds, hiding behind a machismo that denies him his identity, an identity he doesn't want to claim. He never comes out, he never touches another man. He never learned how to act and live as a gay man and so he never does. His personal silence is both choice and compulsory,
Moonlight is most satisfying in its brutal realism, its commitment to withholding from the film violent deaths, gratuitous sex, drug use, or even raised voices. These unpleasantries have become a fact of life for Chiron, and the film treats their occurrence as assumptive, not privileging their repetition for shock value. No character is one–dimensional, and the concept of redemption isn't a familiar concept to the poor of Miami. They live as they do, and confront consequences when they appear.
Every character is well–acted, every shot tinged with a muted sadness that never seems to abate. Moonlight is a roiling exercise in vulnerability, and I guarantee you won't see a better film all year.