Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and directed by Barry Jenkins, this remarkably restrained yet profoundly moving drama is one of the great movies of this year or last year (depending upon how you look at it), and proves seriously cinematic despite the somewhat stagey three-act structure.
Many will claim that Moonlight is a movie specifically concerned with what it is to be black in contemporary America, but there’s so much more going on here, with themes of drug abuse, masculinity, sexuality, poverty and prison also lurking beneath the surface, yet never overwhelming the characters.
Floridian kid Chiron (played at first by Alex Hibbert) is a target for bullies (he’s nicknamed ‘Little’), and after hiding in an abandoned apartment, he’s found by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes him back to the house he shares with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) and offers food and sympathy. Wary and withdrawn, Chiron eventually warms to his hosts and stays the night (mostly as he won’t talk and they can’t work out his address), which angers his abusive Mom Paula (the London-born Naomie Harris, a long way from her continuing role as Moneypenny in the new James Bonds).
Juan and Teresa then become Chiron’s friends and unofficial guardians, especially as Paula descends into crack addiction into the second act and even though the kid (now played by Ashton Sanders) is no fool and knows full well that Juan is a dealer. The scene where Chiron asks him the big question is one of the most quietly confronting moments here.
The teenaged lad also becomes closer to his friend Kevin, who’s now portrayed by Jharrel Jerome (previously it was Jaden Piner and later André Holland will take over), and the pair’s increasingly charged meetings prove further bait for the homophobic Terrel (Patrick Decile, a most human nemesis).
The final act finds Chiron as a young man (played by Trevante Rhodes) who now has a criminal record and a background in dealing himself, and yet this remains a story about dignity and, despite everything, beauty, with fine, naturalistic acting throughout and often gorgeous cinematography capturing the stark sunlight (and rich moonlight) of southern Miami. At one point early on Teresa says, “It’s all love in this house”, and the same could certainly be said about Jenkins’ film.