Each year on the road to awards season, there is always one poignant film that is considered an Oscar favorite by everyone but seen by relatively few due to either a limited release or a quiet marketing campaign. This year, that film is Moonlight and if you haven’t gotten a chance to see it yet you are missing what is quite possibly this year’s best motion picture.
The story of Moonlight is actually three stories woven into one that follow the life of Chiron, a gay black man struggling with understanding his sexuality while fighting to navigate his life through unfortunate circumstances. Yes, films detailing the struggle that black characters face when coping with poverty and crime ridden neighborhoods aren’t exactly that original, but this is a film unlike others because of the realistic nature of what that struggle is like when sexual orientation is thrown into the mix.
Though I can’t speak on what this struggle must be like to overcome, the film depicts an unforgiving reality that must be soul crushing to deal with at any age. Moonlight, quite literally shows how in three acts that follow Chiron throughout his life. The first act introduces us to a pre-pubescent boy that is bullied by other kids from the neighborhood because he’s different in ways he doesn’t quite understand yet. It’s in these years a neighborhood drug dealer, played by Mahershala Ali, encounters him being terrorized and ends up serving as a de facto father figure to him after he realizes he’s been neglected by a crack addicted mother. At the closing of this act, an impressionable foundation is laid for the rest of Chiron’s self discovery.
The second act brings us to Chiron’s teenaged years and shows us how his childhood molded him. Unsurprisingly, both his mother’s drug addiction and his torment from bullies have gotten worse. However, it’s in these years where he has his first sexual experience with a childhood friend. Without anyone to speak to about what he’s going through, things don’t get any clearer for him though and takes a shocking turn that is painful to watch on screen.
The film eventually comes to a powerful end in the third act where we see how his formative experiences have transformed him into a hardened drug dealer that has seemingly avoided coming to terms with his true identity. Nevertheless, everything culminates with incredibly moving encounters with two people from his past that undoubtedly played a role in creating the man Chiron is in present day.
Though there aren’t many characters in the film, all three of Chiron’s roles were memorable performances, particularly Ashton Sanders who played him during his teenage years. Mahershala Ali’s role as Juan was the one that critics responded to most as seen by his Oscar nomination in the loaded Best Supporting Actor category. Ali’s charismatic betrayal of a flawed father figure was magnetic to watch, even if on screen for a relatively short time. In fact, his performance casted a shadow over much of the rest of the film and could be especially felt in Chiron’s adult years. Naomie Harris quietly flanks Ali with her own stunning performance that earned her a Best Supporting Actress nomination, which is even more impressive based on the fact she filmed it in just three days.
Chiron’s depiction of the struggle it is to be gay in a rough environment that doesn’t nurture it is a major conflict of the film, but I think it also reveals the importance of self identity; which sexual orientation is just a part of. Chiron’s inner turmoil isn’t just his sexuality, it’s also the fact he’s lived a relatively loveless life since childhood. From birth, our identities are learned through our caretakers, and as for Chiron, this void was filled by external figures that temporarily served as templates for parents: Juan and his girlfriend Teresa. Considering that, it’s no surprise that Chiron’s adult years mimicked what he knew of the adults and environment that’s always been around him. Watching this cycle repeat itself is sobering. However, the film’s tender ending does give hope for Chiron’s future.
Overall, I think this film brings to life is what is meant by the adage “it takes a village to raise a child,” and does so in a way that is both impactful and beautifully shot. I’m not sure if it will be enough to convince Academy voters to make it his year’s best picture but it’s certainly deserving of so.