As much as I have read about 2017 “Best Picture” Oscar winner “Moonlight,” all I ever gleaned was that it was apparently “good.” Some descriptions would venture so far as to promise a “coming-of-age” story, and every photo from it was of a man and a boy in the water, maybe swimming or getting baptized.
Now that I have watched it, I can tell you “Moonlight” is one of the most intimate and beautiful films I have ever seen, and the subject matter might seem so charged that those of us who have not experienced the issues in the film don’t even know how to talk about it. And that’s another reason why it is so important.
“Moonlight” follows a gay black man through three central chapters of his life. As a young boy, Chiron is unfathomably lonely. His mother is a heavy drug user, and not at all sympathetic to what she intuits about his sexuality. Chiron is portrayed by three different actors at three different ages, and each is wonderful. The little boy barely speaks, and when a friendly drug dealer happens upon him hiding in an abandoned building, it takes the man, Juan, an entire day just to get him to tell him where he lives.
Juan (Oscar winner Mahershala Ali) is intelligent and charismatic and sensitive, but he is not an ideal father figure. Juan worries for Chiron, but he also sells his mother crack. Under these far from ideal circumstances, Chiron suffers through his childhood. In one scene, he draws himself his own bath of cold water, and heats a large pot of hot water on the stove to warm it. There he sits, alone in an empty apartment.
The actor who portrays Chiron in the second segment, Ashton Sanders, is a revelation. His silence communicates the depth of his isolation from the world and his friendship with Kevin is tentative and precarious. In one scene on the beach at night, they connect in the way Chiron never really believed possible. But in the harsh reality of high school, they must conform to the destructive masculine norms that almost destroy Chiron.
In this formative stage, Chiron continues to lean on Juan and his partner, played with warmth by Janelle Monae, while his life with his mother becomes even worse. This is far from a typical inner-city saga about fatherless boys and drugs. The story might sound familiar or preachy, but the scenes are idiosyncratic, beautifully written and thrillingly performed. The emotional payoff in the final segment of the film, when we find Chiron at age 25, is breathtaking.
The pacing of “Moonlight” is episodic, and brings realism to the elegiac “coming of age” story. It also leaves each chapter, and above all the film itself, brilliantly open to interpretation about what comes next. The final scene is incredibly satisfying, but also very far from a happy ending, or even an ending at all. Each segment concludes at a moment of possibility, suspense, and by the end, there is even a glimmer of hope. It is a masterfully told tale of an invisible boy, and how he comes to begin to know himself. The audience in enriched by getting to know him, too.
“Moonlight is currently available to rent.