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.
In all three parts, the film explores Chiron’s relationship with Kevin (played by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland), a childhood friend who, over the years, develops the same feelings for Chiron that Chiron has for Kevin. We’ve seen movies about young love between men and women – reunited years later because it was meant to be, but we haven’t really seen this explored with a gay couple — especially with a black gay couple. Everything in Moonlight feels like new ground being covered. There’s a scene in the second chapter where the high-school bully dares Kevin (who most of the kids seem to like) to punch the timid Chiron (who the kids still pick on). Kevin has to do this to cover up how the two feel about each other. I can’t put into words how powerful this scene plays. (But I will try.) Here’s the one person in Chiron’s life that he truly loves, and he’s being physically beaten by him, in front of everyone. This incident changes Chiron’s life forever, which we see in the shocking third chapter. (I use the word “shocking,” but that’s probably not right. Let’s just say the third chapter picks up with Chiron in a situation I would not have expected.)
Moonlight is a must-see film. That’s right, you have to see it. You have no choice. I don’t know how or why these rules work like they do, but them’s the breaks. If you don’t see it, you will be deported (at least, that’s what I heard). But what Barry Jenkins has done with Moonlight is extraordinary. This isn’t the best gay love story of the year, it’s simply the best love story. I’m not trying to be grandiose or cute by writing that. And I’m not at all trying to say that you will forget that we are watching something that, at least in the first two chapters, is practically forbidden in the masculine environment where these two live. The movie won’t let us forget. But when it’s just them, just these two together, they do forget that what they are doing could be so dangerous. And so do we.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.