“Moonlight” was, no contest, the best movie I’ve seen all year.
Granted 2016 hasn’t exactly been a gold-star year, but “Moonlight” could be up there any year. Many have referred to the movie as “black ‘Boyhood’,” but that is a wildly unfair and problematic comparison. Don’t get it wrong, “Boyhood” was excellent, but “Moonlight” is far different.
The film follows Chiron, starting with his life as a young boy in a bad neighborhood in Miami, eventually progressing to his life as an adult drug dealer in Atlanta. His life sounds like a cliché sob story: timid boy, few friends and a mother who abuses crack. But director Barry Jenkins takes a stereotypical story and puts an additional wrinkle into it by having Chiron discover his homosexuality.
Both Jenkins and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney grew up in rough parts of Miami, and McCraney is gay. Jenkins himself is straight, but he directs the many scenes of homoerotic tension with a light touch. The crux of the second act comes after Chiron leaves his abusive mother yet again and winds up on the beach, where he sees his best friend Kevin.
They share a blunt, and slowly reach a point where Kevin takes Chiron to orgasm. The scene is quiet and tender, not explicit but erotic. One of the biggest strengths of this film is its ability to capture eroticism and sensuality without devolving into explicit territory. The film concludes by cycling back to Chiron and Kevin’s relationship, but the audience never sees as much as a removed shirt.
The only time the film gets explicit is during a dream, when Chiron sees Kevin having sex with a girl. Much of “Moonlight” is a commentary on black masculinity, with a frank discussion of the word “faggot” early in the first chapter.
One of the key relationships of “Moonlight” is between the young Chiron and Juan, a drug dealer inexorably tied to the boy’s mother. Juan finds Chiron hiding in an abandoned motel from bullies who were calling him the aforementioned word and takes him under his wing. As Chiron’s relationship with his mother continues to fail, he spends more time with Juan, who teaches him how to swim and introduces the central conceit of the film: “black boys look blue in the moonlight.”
That was the title of the story McCraney initially wrote, and it hits home hard. Despite the fact that I have never experienced this kind of life, nor will I, the metaphor is clear. So many of this film’s most important scenes take place under the moon, particularly the climax.
While so many movies of the so-called “hood genre” end with someone getting shot, “Moonlight” ends with words and symbolism. Chiron goes back to Miami to see his rehab-bound mother and reunite with Kevin, who now works as a cook.
At this point, Chiron has not actually interacted with Kevin since high school, when Kevin beat him up at the behest of one of Chiron’s bullies. Roughly the last half hour of the movie is dedicated to the tension and relationship between the two, with little else happening besides Kevin occasionally attending to his diner.
The only real flaw in the movie is one minor detail. Whoever thought it was a good idea for the main character to wear a gold grille that ruins the lighting needs to receive a serious talking-to.
“Moonlight” is a film that doesn’t allow you to look away, and keeps the tension firmly focused on the main character and the one man he has ever been intimate with. Ultimately, that’s the great strength of “Moonlight”: intimacy. You have to follow Chiron and his growth, and even in the most uncomfortable moments, it will hold you fast.