Barry Jenkins’ film tells the story of Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) in three stages of his life, the first stage is where Chiron is a target of local bullies for his small size and structure, and suspicions that he is gay (something that Chiron isn’t fully sure but suspects so) the second is his life as a teenager where he begins actually experiment with his sexuality and the third and final stage where Chiron has begun his life as a drug dealer in Atlanta.
Chiron is an outsider to the world he grew up in, a world in which his shyness and timidness is a contrast to the macho, masculine world in the poorest areas of Miami. His homosexuality even further alienates from the others around him most of whom would deem it a weakness. It’s not only a film about alienation but it’s one about racial segregation, not a single white person is cast in the film. Even though it wasn’t intentional, the lack of any white characters is due to the fact that Barry Jenkins didn’t meet his first white friend until he was 19. This speaks volumes about the racial segregation that existed in America approaching the end of the 20th century.
Each story has individual aspects that make each one compelling and engaging, even though the first two segments of the story are perhaps the most engaging. The early stages of Chiron’s life mark him out as an outcast, a fact which the local bullies pick up on rather quickly, but he is taken under the wing of local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali). Mahershala Ali is the unsung hero of the piece, his performance gives humanity and pathos to a dark character, and he’s one whose absence is noted as he was the closest thing Chiron had to a father figure (the scene in which he helped Chiron swim is very moving). Juan’s disappearance is hardly remarked upon, illuminating the fact that life as a drug dealer is one that’s easily quickly, and unceremoniously, taken away but one does notice his disappearance from Chiron's life.
Chiron’s life as a teenager lacks a father figure, he once again becomes the target of bullies and has a very fraught relationship with his crack addicted mother whose more interested in looking for the next score rather than caring for her son. Naomie Harris (who only was filming for grand total of three days) is incredible in a role completely against type. She gets to really get to grips with the character in what is one of her finest roles to date, a role which she developed greatly with ideas of her own ensuring that she fully becomes engrossed in role. The scene in which Chiron first encounters the effects of crack cocaine on his mother is Harris is at her best, and it’s a disorienting one to watch (for this scene, Barry Jenkins drew inspiration from his own relationship with his mother).
Jenkin’s use of close up and using the performers to speak directly to the camera gives the film a stunning level of intimacy, giving his story unique, personal touch. Moonlight is the end result of a director given complete control over the film without studio interface diluting the raw and honest experience. There are bleak moments, but it’s not a film that will overwhelm with crushing, negative emotions.