Editor’s note: this review will contain massive spoilers for the film, so tread lightly if you have not seen it yet.
‘This is the story of a lifetime.‘ On the surface, the tagline for Barry Jenkins’ second feature Moonlight is rather bland. But as with many aspects of this film, it is a layered statement. What is a lifetime? In the final third of this triptych of his life, the central character Chiron is a young man in his twenties. Is that a lifetime? Yet by the time of that final meeting, the drug-dealing Chiron’s life has started to mimic that of Juan, his surrogate father in the first third, but also the man who fueled his mother’s drug habit. A subtle reference in the middle part, a few years onward, makes it clear that Juan is dead, the cause of death clearly implied in his chosen trade. Is this the film telling us that Chiron’s life will also be cut short, and it is indeed the story of a shortened lifetime? The ambiguity in the final shot leaves this question about his future open.
Or is the ‘story of a lifetime’ a reference to Chiron’s very specific situation of a young, gay man growing up in an evironment where there is little tolerance for him? At the end of the film, Chiron is still closeted, so is this the film telling us that he will live a lifetime of hiding his true self, even if he can show it to his one friend? Again, the ambiguity in the final shot leaves this question about his future open.
Yet it could also be that the ‘story of a lifetime’ is to be taken in a broader sense, in which it describes a more general black experience. Chiron’s circumstances, growing up in a poverty-stricken black neigbourhood (in this case Jenkins’ own childhood haunts, Miami’s Liberty City), being raised by a single mother with a drug problem, already in and out of juvenile detention, are all part of a daily struggle for many young black men. Is it their lifetime the film speaks of, through the story of one of them? The film introduces Chiron almost casually, fleeting by Juan as he is chased by other boys, the implication being that this could be the story of anybody who passes you on these crackhouse-lined streets.
The answer to this question of a lifetime could very well be ‘all of the above’, of course. It is the strength of Jenkins’ screenplay and his assured, yet also almost nonchalant direction, that so much can be read into a story that centers around one person’s struggles, and the film feels at once universal and very specific. The film deals mainly with the universal theme of finding your own identity, finding out who you are and what your place in the world is, but it explores this theme through the very specific situation of being a young, black, gay man.
The key to Chiron’s journey is his realization that he is gay, something that essentially happens off screen somewhere between the first and second acts. As we first meet him, age unspecified but somewhere around 8, he is a scrawny and timid kid, bullied by his schoolmates. Even at that age, there is a sense among the other kids that he is different, and the only true friend he has is a boy named Kevin (Jaden Piner). That Chiron (Alex Hibbert) starts to take to an empathetic drug dealer who finds him hiding in an abandoned house comes naturally, as this Juan (Mahershala Ali) becomes the father figure Chiron never had. The boy spends more and more time with Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), much to the chagrin of his drug-addled and abusive mother Paula (Naomie Harris), who in an outburst of rage underlines our suspicions about Chiron with a homophobic slur. Jenkins is smart enough to not actually show this, but has Juan explain to him, out of the blue for the audience, what the slur means. The events are reversed: Juan clumsily tries to tell the boy that Chiron still has time to figure himself out, then we see the abuse hurled at him in silent dialogue, an example of Jenkins’ subtle storytelling.
Fast foward to Chiron in his teens (in this section played by Ashton Sanders), now fully aware of his sexuality. The bullying has become more menacing, his mother’s drug addiction worse, and in a throwaway line we learn that his father figure has died. Chiron is turned more inward, and has become more of a outsider. His only beacons are Teresa and Kevin (now played by Jharell Jerome), with whom he shares an unexpected and intimate moment, Kevin’s reputation as a ladies’ man notwithstanding, in what is probably the happiest night in Chiron’s life. It is all the more painful then that Kevin is the person set up against him in a pivotal moment for the timid Chiron.
Another jump forward in time, and Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has grown. Literally. His tremendous change in physique speaks loudly: never again. He has hardened himself against abuse, and not just physically. He has gone deeper into the closet. After a stint in juvenile detention, Chiron has moved up to Atlanta, to follow his mother after she was admitted to a rehab center there. One night, he gets a phone call: it’s Kevin (André Holland), wondering how his old friend is doing. This pushes Chiron to unexpectedly show up at the diner where Kevin works as a chef, and the two rekindle that moment on the beach years earlier.
Just like in his debut, Medicine for Melancholy, Barry Jenkins shows restraint in his direction. Instead of peppering the film with directorial flourishes, he relies on his gift as a storyteller who knows how to let his audience connect the dots. A good example is a scene between the older Chiron and his now clean mother. We first follow their conversation overhead, then in a wide shot from behind Chiron, as Paula does most of the talking. The dialogue is somewhat unspecific about her circumstances, but combined with her attire one can deduce we are in the garden of an institution of some sort. This is confirmed when the camera turns to Chiron in a closer shot, and we see him wearing a ‘Visitor’ badge. A few moments later, as he lights a cigarette for his mother, the badge is even more readable, and it’s revealed we are at a rehab center. These kinds of scenes show how Jenkins can get by on very little expository dialogue, and how he manages to draw the audience more into the story.
Almost as a result, Jenkins’ mise-en-scene is more functional, and less directed to convey a message or emotion, which doesn’t make for a lot of memorable framing. The film does use James Laxton’s cinematography to the fullest though. You can almost feel the Florida heat rising from the tarmac in the way Laxton films the scenes in the two early chapters (certainly the first one) in high contrast and how he uses color grading, which makes the dark skin tones pop out and look almost aggressive, a good reflection of Chiron’s environment. The latter effect is impressively applied in the final chapter, which is almost entirely set at night and in Kevin’s diner, as he and Chiron meet again after all these years, and the physical attraction is palpable, not least because of Laxton’s richly colored cinematography. It evokes a different kind of heat, whereas the cinematography is almost sensual.
While Jenkins may not get a lot of emotion out of his frames, he does get a lot out of his cast, which is almost uniformly stellar. Ali and Harris have been nominated for Oscars, but any of the three Chirons or André Holland would have been just as deserving. In fact, Harris’ role is somewhat underwritten, making her an antagonist of few facets until her final scene with her son, while each of Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes is given a lot more to work with, giving them more opportunity to shine. Holland mainly skates by on charm alone, but his final scene (and Rhodes’) is perhaps the finest acting moment in the film.
The acting is not flawless though, and it is unfortunate that the setup and execution of one of the pivotal scenes in the film is botched by Jharell Jerome and Patrick Decile, who plays school bully Terrel. It lessens the power of the moment, which is key to the transition into the final third, and it is also the film’s weakest scene in terms of screenwriting and direction. But it is almost the only moment that rings false in a film that elsewhere soars and seduces, and ends on a shot which says everything about the bond between two friends and lovers. But will their relationship last a lifetime?