London Film Festival 2016 review: Moonlight

Director: Barry Jenkins

R | 1h 50min | Drama | 21 October 2016 (USA)

Playing London Film Festival 2016

RATING: ★★★★★

Bearing more than a little resemblance in subject matter and visual approach to Tom Ford’s A Single Man, Barry Jenkins’s emotionally resonant and elegantly restrained coming of age drama explores three stages in the life of a young, repressed gay black man called Chiron. Buoyed by strong performances, a potent evocation of inner turmoil, and lifted by moments of unexpected tenderness, this film truly deserves the buzz it has already been getting on the festival circuit. If you enjoyed Ford’s film - and many did - this delivers much the same emotional punch, delivered more through lyrical imagery, camerawork and character gestures, than actual dialogue. But whereas A Single Man focused on the life of a gay, wealthy white academic, Moonlight’s main character faces a very different set of intersectional challenges. This is study of life in an environment where queerness is just not an option, where being not only poor and black, but also gay, means living with the air almost choked out of you in fear.

At the heart of Jenkins’s film, which is based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, are the actors playing Chiron across three time periods. Each gives a commendable turn in their sections, giving performances that make whichever Chiron is on screen recognisably one single character whilst emphasising distinct aspects of his masculinity and sexuality each time, as well as demonstrating the ongoing and terrible cost of living a life of uncertainty and concealment. Alex R. Hibbert plays the wide-eyed, pre-teen Chiron, tagged as ‘Little’ by his peers, struggling through the minefield of school in Miami in the late 80s. Chiron is already a reticent child who knows he is different from the other kids at school even if he has no words to describe why. There is just something about the way he walks, the way he talks, that has others guessing before he does, including his mother (Naomie Harris), who’s crack habit makes her an unreliable tutor to a boy about to hit the age of sexual awakening. Chased into a derelict junkie pad by the bullies at school one morning, in what is presumably now a familiar ritual, Chiron is rescued by local drug kingpin Juan (played by the charismatic House of Cards star Mahershala Ali), whose character is one of many supporting figures dotted throughout Chiron’s life that defy stereotyping. 

Drug dealer he may be, but Juan recognises something in Chiron that makes him feel paternal towards the boy, and he becomes a kind of compassionate surrogate father to him (with no intention of involving him in the drug life), offering up his home as a sanctuary for the nights when Chiron’s mother’s crack habits consume her. Like Chiron’s mother, Juan knows right away that the boy is gay, but his lack of judging and quiet urging to Chiron to let no one decide his life’s course for him do result in the near-mute kid opening up somewhat. Thus Juan is confronted by the boy’s question; “What does faggot mean?", which is probably the first time the painfully withdrawn child has ever addressed the issue of his own sexuality, an issue that has always been framed for him as a threat. This first section also establishes several character traits and motifs which resonate down through all the versions we see: namely that for Chiron, closing in on himself is a standard defence mechanism. The slightest word out of place, or a moment of unregulated physical contact, risks alerting those around him to his ‘otherness’. When Chiron instinctively and sympathetically touches the face of a young friend after the kid is bloodied after a rough and tumble impromptu football match, the "your funny" response is all Chiron needs to know that such a gesture can never be risked again.

Teen Chiron is played by actor Ashton Sanders, whose physical appearance helps emphasise the boy’s vulnerability; he is painfully thin, with a face that seems to fold into itself when under threat. Chiron’s high school life is shown to be its own form of hell, with beatings from the school thugs a regular occurrence. Yet, as with his encounter with Juan, Chiron finds compassion and connection in the most unusual places, as fellow pupil Kevin (a lively turn from Jharrel Jerome) provides him with his first sexual encounter, alone on a beach which is the one place where, under the moonlight and in the cooling breeze, Chiron feels at peace. Kevin makes a fascinating contrast against  Chiron, being something of a well-known badass in school with swagger to spare, and popular with the ladies. His character offers up an interesting study both of fluid sexuality and the levels of skill concealing any kind of queerness can reach.

Trevante Rhodes as older Chiron gets perhaps the most interesting take on the character, as by this stage we can see how the experiences in the previous sections of the film have bled into his makeup in the ‘present day’. 30-something Chiron has gone through a fascinating and saddening transition, now presenting himself as a pumped-up showcase of excessive masculinity. Rippling with muscles and sporting gold “fronts” in his mouth, Chiron has morphed into a kind of warped image of the Juan he once knew, his new occupation being running the same kind of drug game. This Chiron fucks with his pushers during their counts just to keep them uneasy, drives a chrome-heavy cadillac with blazing tunes, and lives in a comfortable looking apartment a world away from the dive his mother provided for him. But this is all a shield, a front as fake as the gold teeth he sports. One of the film’s most interesting - and tense - sequences occurs in this third act, as a phone call from Kevin (played as an adult in a superbly nuanced turn from Andre Holland) sets Chiron off on a journey to reunite with him. What will be the result of this opening up of his armour? Acceptance…or violence?

Like A Single Man, Jenkins’s film tells it tale through richly evocative imagery. Chiron is shot often in shallow focus, keeping the rest of the world a dreamy distance away, emphasising his isolation but keeping us intimate with him. The colour palette is vivid too, with much of the film taking place under the bright Miami sunshine, all evoking a world alive with possibility and life, but possibilities always just out of reach of this lonely young man. A heartbreaking, gorgeously crafted and highly relevant portrait of growing up without really being alive.

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Owen Van Spall

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