If we ever did get a chance to stand back and appraise our lives, quickly churn out a book before heading to wherever we’re deemed to head, it’d come out in chapters, but also a theme. That theme could be love, loss, an emotion, or some other febrile charge that keeps recurring all through.
In writer-director Barry Jenkins’ gentle, delicate Moonlight, based on In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Chiron, played by three actors depicting different stages in his life, swivels, stumbles, and glides on the beauty of love, of self-realization, of a sexual awakening, that combines to deliver a slice of life that is bathed in reality and yet not exploitative; in places a quiet poetry of reflection, in others a crucible of volcanic emotions that shake the vessel, but never blow it away, just consuming you with grace.
‘Little’ Chiron (played with such innate quietude by Alex Hibbert, you hurt every time you see him) is a victim of school bullying, him being beaten up and called a ‘faggot’. As he’s escaping his school bullies one day, his life collides with drug dealer Juan, played by Mahershala Ali. Ali’s Juan is a triumph of an act, he lithe and deadly, but also, as time passes, purring like papa panther to Chiron – simply a fabulous performance.
And it is in Juan’s opening entry sequence when you’re also introduced to Moonlight’s superb sonata of a theme – composer Nicholas Britell’s moody music score. The background theme that recurs all through the movie is akin to a childhood fragrance or taste that recedes into the deepest corners of our memories, only to resurface and startle us when we least expect it, the lingering sensation quite unfathomable and yet irresistibly nostalgic. Note the haunting theme as Juan drives his car into the neighborhood where his boys sell drugs, the piano and horns rise, glide, a hint of something immutable to enter Juan’s life, and then, gets cut off even as it soars ever so tantalizingly, and Juan gets out of his car – but with the promise of more to come to later.
You’re also introduced to Chiron’s mother – Paula, played by Naomie Harris, who’s devastatingly good, first as the drug-addled, desperate mother who can’t see beyond her addiction and doesn’t care what means it takes to get her that opiate high; and later, a bitterly regretful older woman, looking back at the ruins of her child’s life, seemingly beyond rehabilitation, even as she’s checked into a center for that very purpose.
Then there’s Teresa (a sparkling Janelle Monáe), Juan’s girlfriend who takes to little Chiron, becoming his godmother of sorts as he grows up. And Chiron’s friend Kevin (Jaden Piner), who seems to be the only rejuvenating factor in the former’s otherwise baleful childhood. Him and Juan and Teresa, of course.
Note the exquisite scene at the table when Little asks Juan what the word faggot means. Ali’s act is so tip-toeingly delicate – his deep voice down to a silky route – so poignant here, as he explains to the child what it means; and to his next question if he’s gay, Juan tells him, “You can be gay, but don’t let anyone call you a faggot”, and that is such a quiet, beautiful embrace of humanity in all its diversity.
And some years later, under the moon, on a puffed high on the beach, the teenaged Chiron (played sensitively by Ashton Sanders with the brittleness of a paper buried under a debris of long-forgotten emotions, threatening to dissolve into powder) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) discover what they feel for each other – another scene steeped in trembling, hesitant, and eventually a sexual satori of sorts for the boys. It is also Chiron’s first sexual release. Which is what makes the next scene so devastating, as school bully Terrel (Patrick Decile) acts as a merciless cleaver. Again, in this horrifying scene the recurrent theme comes up, this time composer Britell using the chopped and screwed technique to disfigure the melodic notes, and yet make it scarringly haunting.
Years later, a grown-up Chiron (Trevante Rhodes, muscled up, gold-fronts and all, and yet nursing a tender box of hurt inside), completing life’s circle he began with Juan, now himself a drug dealer, lights a cigarette for his mother – and both realize the hugs and the breakdown come too late to undo any damage. And then Kevin (André Holland) calls Chiron, and it is after the latter puts the phone down that he and you realize how deep that night’s encounter cut into his being, and how true that discovery was.
Moonlight is poetic, sad, hopeful, and celebratory – it makes you think after you’ve watched it, and seen the double whammy of being black and a gay in a society that prides itself on being inclusive, but one that is sorely lacking pride and love – two catalyzing elements for inclusivity.
And the music score makes it the deeply touching sonata it is. It’s the DNA , the RNA, and the very emotional sonic fiber of this enterprise – note the scene where Juan teaches Little how to swim – while the camera bobs in and out of the water, so do the violins, creating a gentle symphonic tide of their own. Even when there’s no dialogue, the score speaks, makes you cringe, makes you reach out in hope. Look at when Kevin creates a labor of love in the kitchen for Chiron – the sprinkle of cello and violins making the scene even more delectable.
And when Kevin and Chiron arrive at the former’s house, the theme plays again, oh so beautifully, soars, rises, and sneaks in through the door’s cracks, to make you smile and shiver in hope. And also realize that love and pride is every human’s inalienable right, no matter their orientation, no matter what color their skin radiates in the moonlight.
Moonlight is rated Rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout/ A in India, and don’t bother watching it on Indian TV/screens
Director Barry Jenkins Running Time 1h 51 min
Writers Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney (story by)
Stars Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, Trevante Rhodes
Watch the trailer of Moonlight here: