Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, the director’s first film since 2009’s Medicine for Melancholy, is an ambitious account of the life of a closeted black man from a rough childhood gripped by bullying and poverty to a hardened adulthood built on self-denial. At its best, the film mines much from the faces of the actors who play protagonist Chiron at various points in his life (Alex Hibbert as a shy child, Ashton Sanders as an awkward, searching adolescent, and Trevante Rhodes as a cynical adult), bridging these time periods through incredibly specific body language that each performer manages to share.
So good are the lead actors that one can overlook, for a time, the simplicity of the narrative that’s built around them. The depiction of Chiron’s childhood is a wholesale embrace of reductive character types, from Paula (Naomie Harris), the boy’s crack-addicted mother, to Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer with a heart of gold who, along with his wife, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), becomes his surrogate parent. In the film’s most baffling scene, said pusher offers a heartfelt talk about the gay slurs hurled at Chiron, assuring the boy that whatever his sexuality is, such words are merely hateful, not descriptive.
These characters and what they represent reflect a larger issue with Jenkins’s screenplay, which takes undeniably common aspects of the African-American experience—extreme poverty, drug addiction, single motherhood—and renders them only in the most basic, narratively tidy forms. This may be the fault of the film’s sharply divided three-act structure, which has to condense each stage of Chiron’s life around the narrative the filmmaker is interested in building. Moonlight is an attempt to tell a story that’s effectively never presented in American cinema, and as a black queer narrative it succeeds by default. But in the actual details of its story, that of its broadly sketched poverty and its chaste sexuality, so much of the film feels old-hat.
The acting, however, elevates the clichés of the script into something approaching lived truth. Hibbert has the least to do of the three Chirons, and yet his nearly mute performance is compelling for the pain etched into the child’s face, the way his mouth is pursed so tightly that it seems to pull his entire face down to his lips, making his wide eyes bulge all the larger with a perpetually traumatized look. Jenkins relies too heavily on close-ups throughout, but they frequently pay off in the way that Sanders transforms Hibbert’s tight-faced trauma into building rage, or how Rhodes adds enough hesitation to his line delivery to soften his hard exterior.
At his best, Jenkins ably communicates the silent exchanges between characters with just enough adornment to not step over the actors, as when the teenage Chiron has his first sexual encounter on a beach with his friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), and the camera cuts to a close-up of Chiron’s hand gripping sand before slowly going slack upon climaxing. Later in the film, the adult Chiron and Kevin (André Holland) reunite, and the camera stands back to let the actors explore their innate chemistry. Nothing else in the film is as thrilling as this reunion scene, where all the deficiencies of the script disappear amid the coy smiles, guilty pauses and awkward flirtations that seem to spring naturally from the actors’ chemistry.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8–18.