It’s been a rough couple of weeks. Rough couple of months. All of 2016, really; it’s kicking humanity’s ass and it’s hard to see any light in a tunnel that doesn’t look like it has an end. The news is a daily deluge of depression, social media’s awash with empty protest, and I keep googling “Betty White alive” just to make sure. It’s a dark world out there, maybe the darkest I’ve ever seen it in my short, absurdly privileged life. In the face of all that, I’m going to tell you to do the same thing all the smartest people you follow on twitter are telling you to do: go see Moonlight.
You won’t immediately feel better; it might, in the short term, make things look worse. Moonlight is not the escapist fun you think you want right now. That’s what Bridget Jones’ Baby was for; that’s why they keep releasing Beauty & the Beast trailers just when we need them most. Moonlight isn’t that. Moonlight is bleak and sad and intermittently traumatizing. It takes place in a violent, marginalized, brutally unfair corner of our world and drags us along beside a protagonist whose innocence is beaten out of him until he’s barely recognizable. Moonlight is slow and hard, frustratingly paced and dizzyingly shot, full of violence and drugs and prejudice and all the things you want to pretend don’t exist. But it forces us to do something we too often fail to do, it forces us to look for whatever light we can find in a sea of darkness. Moreover, it asks us to notice how that light changes us. “In moonlight”, the film observes, “black boys look blue”.
We first meet Chiron at the age of 9, played by a sweetly serene Alex Hibbert and nicknamed “Little”. Little’s best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner) challenges our all-but-totally-silent hero to prove he’s “not soft” by goading him into playground fisticuffs. Little protests that he knows he’s not soft, he shouldn’t have to prove it. He proves it anyway.
Little’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris in a performance with “Oscar” written all over it) is a nurse with a crack problem and all the motherly warmth of Lady Tremaine. Her cool-headed dealer Juan is played with stirring sincerity by Mahershala Ali, laying the foundation for a film about the duality of man as both the surrogate father who gives Little his strength and the literal provider of what’s destroying his mother. In contrast to the tempest of gratitude and fury he keeps bottled up in the face of Juan, Little sees Juan’s girlfriend Teresa as simplistically angelic (played accordingly by the gorgeous Janelle Monáe). Teresa is a beacon of hope throughout the film, a safe haven and a rare constant in Chiron’s life who is mentioned constantly despite only appearing in a handful of scenes in the first two acts. Juan dies offscreen without explanation and, when an older Teresa appears in act two, she has a limp that’s never spoken of. Teresa’s life is understood to be its own story of heartbreak but what we see is the light she brings to Chiron’s darkness.
The really hard part is act two, the third of the film that stars the mesmerizing Ashton Sanders as a teenaged Chiron enduring the agony of teen-on-teen brutality and the ecstasy of sexual awakening on a quiet moonlit beach with Kevin (now played with bittersweet frivolity by Jharrel Jerome). Whatever you do, no matter how badly you want to, do not leave when things get rough.
The third act recasts Chiron as Trevante Rhodes whose sad eyes and thoughtful silence connect him to his predecessors despite representing a massive physical transformation for the character now known as “Black” (a nickname given to him by Kevin in high school). Rhodes is strong and imposing, physicalizing through casting the learned hardness that’s been gradually obscuring Chiron’s vulnerability. Replacing Sanders’ gangly arms are muscled weapons of intimidation with a gun clasped in one hand as if a natural extension. He runs a corner in Atlanta, drives around in a car just like Juan’s, and wears gold fronts on his teeth. If it weren’t for that look in his eyes, it’d be hard to believe this is the Chiron we knew.
Moonlight ends with nearly a half hour of nothing. Two people talk to each other, not about anything in particular, then we zoom out and just leave them there. Writer/director Barry Jenkins refuses to tell us that everything will be okay; the damage is done, the world is the world, and no degree of definitively happy ending can undo those things. Moonlight is a slow, steady fall into darkness but the stirring and simple final scenes are our reminder that the light is always out there, somewhere.