By Vincent Abbatecola
Coming-of-age stories have some of the most lasting effects on the viewer. Watching a character grow into the person they set out to become is the type of narrative that holds the abilities to connect with any audience. In some form or another, we see ourselves in these characters and can’t help but look for any parallels they may have with our own lives.
This is something we have the opportunity to see in director Barry Jenkins’ sprawling and dramatic chronicle, “Moonlight.” You may have heard an abundance of feedback about the movie from some prominent film festivals earlier in the fall, and there are reasons why. Between its searingly emotional story and quiet, yet explosive performances, your 2016 moviegoing won’t be complete until you see this film.
Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is a shy, young African-American boy living with his neglectful mother (Naomie Harris) in a rough Miami neighborhood. He soon becomes attached to Juan (Mahershala Ali) a tender and fatherly crack dealer, and his caring wife, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). As Chiron goes on a journey from adolescence to adulthood, several personal events will occur that will lead him on his path into the man he’s meant to become.
The role of Chiron is played by three actors at different stages of his life: Hibbert portrays him as a child, Ashton Sanders portrays him as a teenager, and Trevante Rhodes portrays him as an adult. Despite three actors playing this role, it’s miraculous to see each of their portrayals be in sync with each other when depicting Chiron’s persona. It’s something that reminded me of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” where the main character was played by one actor and filmed for 12 years of his life. Although this technique isn’t used in “Moonlight,” the ability for these actors to all get in Chiron’s mindset to the same successful degree, from when we first see him as a child to when he becomes an adult, almost has the feeling of Jenkins using the same actor for the entire movie. Even though Chiron is a withdrawn individual throughout most of the film, Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes are superb in showing us hints of his desires to be the person he wants to be, giving us some hope for him as he goes through the hardships of his home life and school life. This is a movie about a young life unfolding, and this trio of actors does a tremendous job in staying in sync with the essence of the main character.
Mahershala Ali’s performance as a father figure to Chiron is one that provides the viewer with a sense of comfort and protection, which is something Chiron needs. The interactions between these two characters help provide the foundation for Chiron’s confidence in emerging from his shell, with Juan imparting wisdom onto Chiron to give him the boost in confidence he needs. The gentleness and warmth of his persona draws us and Chiron into how he views the world, making Juan the person that Chiron needs and deserves in his life, and Ali’s performance gives you the reassurance that Chiron’s life may just turn out all right.
Naomie Harris doesn’t hold back when playing Chiron’s mother. She makes us infuriated by her character’s inattentiveness towards her son who needs her love more than anything, but we also understand she is the way she is because of her exposure to the troubles of her neighborhood. So, despite being upset with her, we are still able to sympathize with her, and the final scene between her and Chiron solidifies those sentiments because, just like her son, she wishes to be a different person, and this adds a whole other dynamic to their mother-son relationship.
The screenplay by Jenkins is divided into three sections, each one depicting a different stage in Chiron’s life. Each of these segments takes up about a third of the movie, but within those thirds, we are thrust into Chiron’s journey with such intimacy that we learn so much about him, despite the movie not even being two hours long. Although this is one of those stories that may seem relatively simple on the surface, there’s a lot that’s going on in Chiron’s head, and he lets his feelings out little by little as he grows older. The narrative builds his life on moments that are emotionally liberating, all of which are punctuated with such an honest examination of someone who’s trying to emerge into the person that he ultimately wants to become.
Through a wonderful use of quietness and close-ups, Jenkins’ direction makes you feel the emotional charges that are occurring between his characters, whether those charges be filled with happiness, anger, love, hatred, or anything else. He brings us close to the hardships that permeate Chiron’s life, yet manages to always provide us with a sense of hope that Chiron will have an opportunity to break away towards something better. With “Moonlight,” the viewer is given the chance to step side by side with Chiron, placing them on the type of journey you won’t get in any other film this year.
Final Grade: A