Moonlight is a portrait of a man who grows into both what society expects him to become and a man who comes into his own apart from expectations. Openly cinematic in terms of its visuals, it is a carefully paced film, hypnotic, sometimes painful but always sincere in its telling of how one man came to be.
Told in three acts, Moonlight is the story of Chiron.
Act I: Little is of Chiron in his elementary school years, a victim of constant bullying who flees his tormentors and finds temporary refuge in an abandoned apartment. Coming across him is Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug kingpin who sees in Chiron someone in desperate need of love and a father figure. Juan takes Chiron first to his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae) for some food, a bed, and a bit of emotional support, then to Chiron's mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). This is the only time Paula is shown in a good place, a loving, hardworking woman who worries about her son but who is also a bit inattentive.
The bullying continues, and Juan does his best to mentor Chiron (who is nicknamed Little), taking him to the beach for swimming and life lessons. Little's only real friend is Kevin, who is more popular and self-assured. Paula, for her part, slips into drugs, and Juan finds himself her supplier. Little finds genuine love only with Juan and Teresa, despite their business. Juan doesn't lie when he's asked if he's a drug dealer, and Little also asks him what a 'f****t' is. He's told that's something said to gay people to hurt them. Little looks up at Juan and asks if he, Little, is one. Juan tells him no, that he might be gay, but not that.
Act II: Chiron finds Chiron now a teen, still bullied, and with Paula more involved in drugs and not ashamed to give herself to men for money/drugs. Kevin is a pretty popular fellow, and still Chiron's only friend. Chiron is still bullied, but the bullying goes beyond the taunts of the past into growing physical violence and mocking of his mother. Juan has passed on, but Teresa is still there, offering the only bit of genuine love Chiron has ever had.
Kevin, who has nicknamed Chiron 'Black', loves the ladies but he also is the only other person who cares about Chiron. He may care more than even he may understand, for one night on the beach, as they sit together and smoke some marijuana, Kevin and Chiron kiss, and Kevin gives Chiron a remarkably tender handjob (Chiron's first sexual experience).
The bullying gets worse, with Kevin egged on by Chiron's main bully, Terrell, to beat Chiron up as part of some game. Kevin is extremely conflicted, but he keeps swinging at his friend, where Chiron refuses to go down and end it. No matter, as Terrell and his friends start kicking him mercilessly while a horrified Kevin looks on.
The next day, with Paula still in her own stupor, Chiron goes to class, picks up a chair, and slams it into Terrell. Chiron is arrested and as he's led to the squad car, Kevin passes by, the two exchanges glances.
Act III: Black has Chiron now the complete opposite of who he was before going up the river. He's extremely buff, and he has turned into another Juan. Like his only father-figure, he sells drugs, but he isn't hard or lacking compassion. He leads a solitary life, so he's surprised to get a call from Kevin. Now living in Miami, he finds Chiron's number through mutual friends and invites him to come from Atlanta to visit. He also asks Chiron to forgive him for his acts and gives him some information about himself: Kevin too having served some time in jail and now a cook.
Chiron is confused and conflicted about his own feelings for everyone. Paula is now at a treatment center, and she begs her son's forgiveness, telling him she did love him despite everything. Chiron and his mother do find peace between them, and now he goes to Miami. Kevin is surprised at Chiron's build and his life as a minor drug lord. Chiron seems a bit closed up, showing little to no emotion, even when Kevin shows him a picture of his son, Kevin, Jr., the product of a fling.
Chiron goes to Kevin's apartment, and here he lets a tiny crack appear. He softly tells Kevin that he's never been with anyone sexually after their one moment together. Kevin cradles Chiron, and we end with a vision of young Chiron, at the beach, bathed in blue.
In the case of Paula, it's both.
Director Barry Jenkins, adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney's play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, brings a tenderness and visually arresting style to the film. Many scenes are subtle and soft, not given to big dramatic moments. Take for example Chiron and Kevin's encounter. Without being overt or graphic, the emotional passion that they have in that moment is handled deftly, softly, the waves, the kisses, and Chiron's soft moans the only sounds heard. We understand what's going on, but we see only Chiron's hand digging into the sand as the physical response to his first moment of sexual intimacy. This scene is actually more about emotional intimacy, of this young man finding an outlet to a physical love he's never had.
As a side note, I don't think people should get hung up on whether Kevin is himself gay or bisexual or even heterosexual but who just happens to love Chiron. It's more than likely that Chiron himself is gay (the morning after his phone call with Kevin, Chiron wakes up to find he had a wet dream), but Moonlight is only part of a young black man's sexual awakening (in this case, towards another man). Moonlight is also about one young black man's search for true love: physical and emotional.
The emotional love he craves comes from people who might not be thought of as 'good': a drug dealer and his girlfriend, yet Juan and Teresa are the only ones who treat Little/Chiron with genuine affection, seeing the hurt, sad, lonely boy when so many others see an awkward, weak, perhaps effeminate figure. This search goes to his very core: even as a large, muscular man who has built a strong criminal base and can have any woman (or even man) he wants or can afford to rent/buy, he has never given himself physically or emotionally to anyone.
His soft, tender confession, almost cry for love, to Kevin is not a call for sex, but love, hoping to have if not physical intimacy to recreate what they shared once, at least the emotional intimacy Chiron still connects with Kevin. Sex and love are two different things.
Moonlight wraps you in quickly, a bit like a dream. Jenkins accomplishes this with the cinematography (courtesy of James Laxton) and Nicholas Britell's score. It evokes a somewhat otherworldly feel, something grounded in reality and yet a bit distant from the world we know it.
Of particular note is when Juan takes Little to learn to swim. The music slips you into a bit of a trance, where one can almost feel the liberation for Little and even perhaps for Juan, who has found someone he can mold into a better man regardless of whether this boy may or may not be gay.
Mahershala Ali's performance is quiet and strong, gentle and moving as the father-figure with the great flaw of being a good man making money off the misery of others. His heartbreak when Little walks away after he admits to selling drugs, and the pain he must feel over knowing that he in part is causing Little's home life to be so bad, is heartbreaking. It's a small part (he dies after Act I), but he leaves a powerful impact.
With this and Hidden Figures, Janelle Monae is two-for-two in terms of shaping a wonderful performance. I know nothing of her singing (apart from an appearance in a Pepsi commercial), but Monae has a fantastic career as an actress with 2016 being a remarkable year for her. Harris, a criminally underused actress, brings sympathy in what could be standard 'drug-addicted-mother' role. Her last scene has no big dramatic moment, no grand epiphany.
Instead, like many of the performances in Moonlight, it is very soft, sad, moving, and quiet. Moonlight is a very quiet film, one that relies on the story, enhanced greatly by its cinematography and score, to elevate it into a moving tale of one man's growth, self-awareness, and self-acceptance.
Moonlight, at its core, is about one man, beaten down, whom people have shaped into who he has become, for good or ill. It is about his thirst for love, finding it in unexpected places, and at the end, coming to a semblance of peace within himself.