At The Middle of the World: Barry Jenkins’ ‘Moonlight’

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight creeps up on the audience with its nuanced performances, unique direction and beautiful photography. It doesn’t peddle in flashy sequences to force its way into your memories. Chiron will be one of the 21st century’s great film characters because Moonlight will not go away as long as there are souls searching for an understanding of their place in the world and that they belong.

Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight tells the story of Chiron in three separate chapters, covering three periods of his life. In the first, he is a shy young boy played by Alex Hibbert. He meets crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who becomes a father figure for him. His mother (Naomie Harris) is a drug addict, making Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) the only role models in his life he can look up to. In the second sequence, Chiron is a teen played by Ashton Sanders. And during the final chapter, he is an adult, played by Trevante Rhodes.

Kevin is the one other person in Chiron’s life he cared for. The two grew up in school together, but they went a decade without seeing each other. Kevin is first played by Jaden Piner, then Jharrel Jerome and finally by The Knick‘s Andre Holland. He’s the one who pushed Chiron to stand up for himself and the one person left for Chiron to love in the end.

Through all three sequences, Chiron’s search for love is the dominant thread. He is gay, making him a target of bullies at school. His struggle to find anyone who might care for him has pushed him to become a drug dealer like Jaun, even dressing like him and decorating his car like his. Unfortunately, Juan is no longer able to help him after the first third of the movie, so he has to pick himself up. He has to help himself find the love he’s been searching for.

Moonlight is a piece where every aspect is there to tell the story and to put the audience in Chiron’s shoes. The photography by James Laxton is fluid, with a camera always moving and sulking, just as Chiron does. The editing by Nat Sanders and Joi McMillion help us to understand how Chiron thinks with fragmented memories, linking each chapter of the film. Jenkins’ screenplay is also stripped to the bare essentials. We learn so much through dialogue because Jenkins’ film isn’t about seeing Chiron in prison or learning where Chiron’s father is. It’s about his future and where he’s going in life.

The actors’ performances stay with you too. Mahershala Ali’s performance as Juan is perfect because you can’t forget about it. He makes as much an impression on the audience as he does on Chiron. True, he doesn’t have much screen time, but it brings to mind so many other great performances that are short on screen time but deserve recognition. We could not believe that Chiron would look up to someone who briefly dominated his life if Ali didn’t completely inhabit the role.

That’s not to take anything away from the rest of this cast. Rhodes, Sanders and Hibbert all accomplish a hefty task – making us believe that they are all playing the same character. Hibbert establishes Chiron’s personality and movements and Sanders and Rhodes pick up the baton. It’s impossible to overlook how Rhodes nails Hibbert’s shyness in the final sequence when he meets the adult Kevin. It’s almost tough to see these as three different performances because of Jenkins’ attention to detail. For a moment, you can almost forget that there are three different actors playing Chiron.

“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you,” Juan tells Chiron. This is true, of course, but Moonlight also shows the importance of having a support system to allow you to do that. We’re here to help each other out, but also to help us understand who we are. This is not going to be a simple awards player that will disappear in a year or two. Moonlight will not – and cannot – be forgotten.

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