Moonlight is a beautiful piece of filmmaking.
I have mixed feelings on Oscar buzz. Part of me loves it because it’s a fun part of popular culture. But another part of me grimaces when people take it all so seriously – it becomes such a grind. But then there’s that third, most important part of Oscar buzz: How it directly affects a small movie like Moonlight — how it can transform a film like this from something not a lot of people see, to something people want to see because it’s got “the buzz.” Maybe that’s the wrong reason to see a movie. But who cares? As long as people do see Moonlight, it doesn’t really matter why they see it. So this is why I like Oscar buzz.
In Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival), we watch three chapters in the life of an African-American Miami man named Chiron: In the first chapter, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is a child and is referred to as “Little”; in the second, he’s an awkward teen (Ashton Sanders) and is still referred to as “Little,” in the third, he’s an adult (Trevante Rhodes) and is definitely not refereed to as “Little” anymore. All three of these chapters take place at unspecified times. (I know this because I assumed the first chapter took place in the ‘80s and I heard an earful from the film’s publicity team that this is for sure not the case.)
In the first chapter, young Chiron is picked on at school (the other kids think he’s gay, which is true), has a crack-smoking mother (Naomie Harris), and a father who is no longer in the picture. The closest thing Chiron has to an adult who actually cares about him is man named Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). The problem is that Juan is the man who sells Chiron’s mom crack – so, no, it’s not the most stable of living situations.
What’s interesting is Juan and Teresa really do care about Chiron. There’s a absolutely heartbreaking scene where Juan has to explain to Chiron what the word “faggot” means, a word Chiron is called relentlessly at school. Juan explains, simply and eloquently, to Chiron that it’s a word used to make gay people feel bad – and tells Chiron that he might be gay, but he doesn’t have to put up with hearing that word. This scene is one of the most pure pieces of cinema I’ve seen this year. Juan wants to protect Chiron from the evils of the world, but circumstances dictate this won’t happen. People in Juan’s business don’t always stay alive or stay free.