Leading up to the Oscar’s, being declared a “front-runner” is a coveted title that few can attain and fewer can maintain. When “Moonlight” came out of the Telluride Festival earlier this fall, the film was declared to be one of these elusive front-runners. As award season starts up once again, the film about a black, gay boy’s life is still maintaining its acclaimed status. Whether or not the film will win any awards at the Oscar’s is something only time will tell, but regardless the film will still stand out as being one of the best queer films, best coming-of-age films, and best black film in quite some time.
While “Carol” was the lone LGBT film of last year’s awards season, it still didn’t take home nearly as many prizes as it should have. While “Moonlight” is looking likely to be the only queer film this time around, unlike “Carol”, “Moonlight” is more broad in its themes and style. Aside from the gay characters, the films are almost entirely different. To pigeonhole “Moonlight” as a gay movie or a black movie is wrong, because as the film tells the life of Chiron throughout three crucial points in his life, the wide-ranging problems of life appear and are weaved together by director Barry Jenkins.
The first chapter, titled “Little”, finds a young Chiron, played by Alex Hibbert, dealing with school bullies and a drug-addicted mother (played by the great Naomie Harris). Growing disheartened by the constant bullying and his drug-addled mother, Chiron befriends a local crack dealer named Juan and his girlfriend Theresa (played by Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe). Juan begins acting as the father figure to Chiron and makes him feel loved, while Theresa acts as the mother he wishes he had. The second chapter, titled “Chiron,” finds Chiron in high school where the problems of the first chapter only grow, with his mother’s drug problem and the bullying becoming worse. This is also shown in Juan’s death which leaves a sorrow over the characters and shows how the pain of Chiron’s life has only grown. These issues take a side-step for a short time as a Chiron reconnects with a childhood crush, Kevin, and begins to figure out his sexuality. Upset with his life and wanting change, Chiron begins acting out against his mother and his bullies, who then force his crush, Kevin, to beat Chiron. Chiron then lashes out at one of his bullies and gets sent to a juvenile detention center in Georgia. In the final chapter, “Black,” it is shown that Chiron remade himself and became a drug dealer, trying to forget his past. With his mother in rehab and Theresa in his hometown, Chiron pretends as if his youth never happened and lives a solemn existence dealing drugs. Everything is going fine for Chiron until Kevin calls after a song reminded Kevin of Chiron, prompting Chiron to travel to Miami.
While the film seems like it is too niche to be relatable, many of the themes are very prevalent today, with bullying, masculinity, sexuality, and black urban culture all being covered throughout the film. Regardless of skin color, sexuality, gender, or how much money you have, the film will have a profound impact on anyone who watches it. The themes, while they may be tragic and dark at times, are crucial to the story but don’t overpower it. Director Barry Jenkins weaves together these complex themes and makes it clear that you can’t pigeonhole the film into only one type of film. At times the film is a coming-of-age story, a queer love story, and a family drama all in one, but the main focus of the film is clearly to capture the difficult complexity of life.
From a technical standpoint, Barry Jenkins film is spectacular. Each chapter perfectly captures the urban setting that Chiron is in, with bright and blaring colors filling the screen at all times. The camera closely follows the inhabitants on-screen in an almost suffocating manner. This close-up view of the characters helps show the struggle and pain that characters are facing the entire time. Each scene is built on color and sound, which fill the quiet moments and help tell the story. Each song is crucial to the mood of the film, such as one of the final and most heartwarming scenes in the film. After receiving a call from Kevin, Chiron travels back to his hometown for seemingly the first time in years. Kevin tells Chiron that the song “Hello Stranger” by Barbara Lewis plays made him think of Chiron. As the song plays, a nostalgic feeling fills the room, and gives the viewer hope, after nearly an hour and a half of seeing Chiron struggle.
While the story isn’t something that every person will easily relate too, it is a story that has crucial elements that everyone has felt. While few know what it is like to be a black gay man who has problems with bullying and a drug addicted mother, almost everyone knows about, almost everyone knows how it feels to be different and the numerous pains of growing up. “Moonlight” is a masterpiece of queer cinema, in black cinema, and cinema in general, due to its ability to make you leave the film feeling connected to Chiron and his story, no matter who you are.