There are some people who look at movies, see characters who look and behave nothing like them and dismiss them out of hand. Take, for example, Barry Jenkins's Moonlight, a film about the life of a young black man in Miami who struggles to come to terms with his homosexuality. On the surface, I have little in common with this man, named Chiron. But I would be a fool not to seek out his story. And if you're one of the people described at the beginning of this paragraph, then shame on you.
Based on an autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, adapted for the screen by Jenkins, Moonlight perpetuates the theory that the more specific a story is, the more universal it feels. We are witness to the young life of Chiron in three different stages: childhood, adolescence and young adulthood. He is played by three different actors—Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes—all of whom do not resemble each other so much as physically but in spirit. In fact, the drastic contrast between Chiron as a teenager and as a man is so great as to shock you when you first witness the transition. Jenkins moves methodically and chronologically from one stage in Chiron's life to the next, showing us the simultaneous progression and stasis of his life.
Many of the obstacle in to which Chiron runs can be attributed to his flaky, drug-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris, Spectre). She is aware of her son's homosexuality at an early age ("Why do you think the teeth boys are kicking his ass all the time?") but she is far from nurturing, too self-obsessed and spiteful in the particular way addicts can be at their worst which, in Paula's case, is most of the time. Bereft of a father, Chiron runs by chance into drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes the young boy under his wing and treats him with dignity and understanding, with the support of Juan's girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe).
Throughout his life, Chiron is reserved and quiet, fearful of how the world will perceive him and confronting this difficulty using various strategies, depending on his age. As a little boy, he tries to associate with other boys, most of whom exclude him, except for Kevin, the one constant friend in Chiron's life. As a teenager, however, Chiron has retreated inwardly, staring blankly at the other boys who torment him constantly, going so far as to beat him up and test the limits of his friendship with Kevin. But as a man, Chiron has all but disappeared into the personality of Black, the nickname bestowed upon him as a younger man but one that has utterly subsumed his former self.
The storytelling throughout is utterly cinematic, despite the film's origins in the theater. Jenkins, with his cinematographer James Laxton, demonstrates a master of both the internal and external world, and how the two can be combined to express the turmoil felt by Chiron. The film is often free of dialogue, so we are left to observe Chiron's face as he observes the world around him, a frequently hostile environment that seems to be focused on torturing him above all else. There are traces of Malick in the film's more impressionistic moments, but we never forget the brutal reality in which Chiron lives. This is a movie populated by hard people who deal with their tough lives with varying degrees of success. But there is never a trace of stereotyping or sentimental hand-wringing over Chiron. He clearly doesn't pity himself and doesn't want anything of the sort from anyone else, so the film doesn't give it to him. It's a movie about poor people that doesn't wallow in poverty or its more grotesque tendencies.
Despite the boldly defined structure of the film, it never feels anything less than an authentic portrayal of a life lived, in all of its intermittent beauty and more frequent pain. It's a quiet movie with a lot more on its mind than it cares to express, leaving the most important thoughts unsaid but deeply felt. You will ache for Chiron, his family and the difficult world in which he lives. But you'll cheer more for the gentle way the film treats him. Jenkins is not interested in making a movie about a particular issue; this is not a film intended to crusade for a particular cause, although it may do just that in passing. What the director is most interested in is your empathy.