After an eight-year hiatus from directing feature films, Barry Jenkins returns with his sophomore release, a beautifully executed tale of an unseen American. Moonlight shares the life of a poor, black, gay man, a member of intersecting minority groups often pushed aside and labeled outcasts of society. Jenkins takes a character that feels that he could disappear without a trace and expertly shares his struggle.
Adapted from Tarrel Alvin McCarne’s play In the Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Barry Jenkins breaks down the evolution of a man’s life into three parts. The film follows Chiron, a black man growing up in a poor community in Miami, as he comes to terms with his sexuality. Divided into childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, we catch glimpses of pivotal moments in Chiron’s life. In childhood, we get our first look at the bullying Chiron experiences and the unstable home life that shapes his future relationships. In adolescence, we see the progression of that bullying and his first and only experimentation with intimacy. In adulthood, we grasp the long term effects of the mistreatment Chiron endured throughout his childhood and teenage years.
The atypical structure of the film hints at its stage influence, but nothing about the film channels over the top theatrics too often found in film adaptions of plays. It is subtle and patient in its delivery creating constant tension throughout. The transitions between the three sections are seamless, and create a true evolution of character. Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Alex Hibbert give jaw dropping performances as adult, teenage, and child Chiron, respectively. Hibbert’s portrayal of six-year-old Chiron has the same depth and pain as Sanders’ and Rhodes’. The consistency in emotion and sensibility is chilling, unnerving, and crucial in understanding Chiron’s lifelong internal torment. The lack of dialogue and human interaction emphasize Chiron’s loneliness and alienation while the dizzying sensations, captured by cinematographer James Laxton, during the rare instances Chiron finds himself surrounded by groups of people highlight his inability to fit into the societal expectations of black men.
Jenkins does an impeccable job of aligning the audience with Chiron. The shots linger on his face capturing every emotional shift in nonverbal communication, all the sounds are subjective and emphasized according to how he perceives them, and the color blue saturates the screen acting as psychological insight into his constant introspective behavior. And while Jenkins touches on universal themes such as solitude and identity that help garner empathy toward Chiron, his story and position in life is unique, a reality unknown to most people.
The criticism of toxic masculinity and the way race, class, and sexuality influence the opportunities presented to men are placed front and center, but their delivery never feels overwhelming or forceful. Jenkins’ film is restrained and silent yet powerful filled with both tender and crushing moments, resulting in a triumphant and masterful stride towards diversifying the storylines we see in media.