Moonlight tells a universal story which is rarely told. It reminds us that every life has anguish, hurt, confusion and ultimately, hope.
Moonlight is a touching tale of childhood, family, and self-discovery. The film is a three-part narrative, split into the childhood, adolescence and adulthood of Chiron. Living in Miami, in the heart of the war on drugs, he witnesses the detrimental effects of the drug trade in his neighbourhood, and in particular on his mother.
Struggling as a young boy trying to fit in, Chiron, who is nicknamed ‘Little’, barely has the confidence to speak and is terrorised by other boys at school. A young couple, who recognise the struggles Chiron faces, provide him with a safe place to go when things get rough, and when his mother won’t provide him with the support he needs.
Despite only knowing Chiron at the beginning of the narrative for a very short time, his tormented childhood is very upsetting. The run down corner of Miami in which he lives is a microcosm of the rest of America, who are suffering the detrimental effects of drugs as well as the limited opportunities for minorities. The film completely subverts the traditional, idealistic depiction of Miami at the heart of drug territory, offering a clear contrast to the glamorisation of the issue seen in Scarface.
It’s always extremely refreshing when a film challenges distorted representations of a place that people are seldom brave enough to challenge. The film’s depiction of Miami is an incredibly honest portrayal, and is brimming with raw emotional turmoil. It presents a reality which is shocking and distressing, and it initially looks as though Chiron will never escape his circumstances.
Chiron as a young boy (Alex R. Hibbert), teenager (Ashton Sanders) and older self (Trevante Rhodes) are all impressive performances, with effective and believable age transitions. There are noticeable changes in Chiron’s character, but at the same time each actor maintains the vital quiet, shy aspects which highlight that the character is suffering from the same problems his whole life. This familiar personality for the whole of the narrative is what makes watching Chiron’s coming of age so difficult, as it is clear that his problems do not go away with age.
The score is particularly poignant in the way it changes throughout. The classical music interludes in the childhood scenes heighten the dramatic effect of an arguably mundane existence, reminding us that there is more to this story than what we see. As Chiron grows older the classical string music transitions to a softer score and the occasional lyric soundtrack, which subtly tells us that things are gradually changing.
Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is a character who deteriorates rather than stagnates. Her mistreatment of Chiron doesn’t cause the audience to dislike her, but rather pity her and her situation. Naomie Harris is well suited to the motherly role, where her maternal instincts are constantly conflicted with her drug addiction. Harris delivers a sound performance, and while lacking the authenticity of someone born and bred in Miami, she captures the essence of a troubled mother effectively.
The question of Chiron’s sexuality and his subsequent challenge to discover it for himself is a touching insight into the emotional turmoil of teenagers in their struggle to be comfortable in their own skin. There is nothing more uplifting than watching someone embrace their true selves and most importantly, be comfortable with it. Although at first Moonlight seems to be a gloomy portrayal of life, there are glimmers of happiness, optimism and hope.
Moonlight (2016) directed by Barry Jenkins, is being shown as part of the 2016 BFI London Film Festival. Further information about the festival including screening times and ticket information can be found here.