"You got to decide for yourself who you're going to be."
VIFF 2016—Writer/director Barry Jenkins, in only his second feature, has created a beautifully heartbreaking film about African-American masculinity and sexuality based on the unproduced play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Moonlight is a stunning portrait of growing up black, poor, and gay in the Miami housing project of Liberty City—where both Jenkins and McCraney coincidentally grew up—told in three distinct chapters.
We follow Chiron, played by three actors of different ages who did not meet until the film's premiere, as a boy/man struggling with his own identity and place in the world while dealing with the usual hardships of his impoverished community. Alex Hibbert ("Little"), Ashton Sanders ("Chiron"), and Trevante Rhodes ("Black"), play the character as a child, teenager, and young man with diversely rich but complementary levels of sensitivity and quiet earnestness. Rhodes is really able to embody many of the quiet, growing emotions of his younger actors while evoking a deep well of mature sensitivity to buck any racial stereotypes.
The film also follows along Chiron's friend Kevin, played by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland, as an important supporting player supplementing key points in his life's journey of self-discovery. Holland, in particular, is vibrant and pays off a lot of the more gentle work done by his younger counterparts.
It's a remarkable act of casting as all the actors give unique, dynamic yet minimalist performances adding to a greater whole. The use of multiple actors to portray single characters enhances the technical storytelling just as it thoughtfully highlights the sombre beauty and poverty of its setting while informing us of Chiron's psychological point of view towards his conflicted identity. Cinematographer James Laxton's use of colour and light as recurring motifs (along with water) only add to the grounded yet heightened sense of the characters' unfortunate but everyday realities.
Naomie Harris as Chiron's crack addicted mother is utterly heartbreaking as she presents a nuanced portrait of poverty and desperation likely only hinting at her own unseen earlier trauma in life while struggling through motherhood. Contrasted to this is Mahershala Ali in the first chapter as Juan, a mature and caring father figure to Chiron, who informs him of life's many truths while grounding the emotional journey of his youth.
Moonlight is a beautifully understated, coming-of-age film about the contemporary black male experience as it ambitiously explores modern conceptions of toxic masculinity and sexuality into a satisfying and universal yet still still very specific context. Jenkins shows his immense talent for constructing an artfully complex yet sensitive story spanning one man's life in three acts.
Moonlight screened at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival as part of the Panorama series.
More | YVArcade / AV Club / Indiewire / New Yorker / The Playlist / Vox