Moonlight depicts the journey of Chiron, a young black male from a depressed Florida neighbourhood, as he progresses from childhood to adulthood, focusing upon three formative stages of his life as he traverses a path through the drugs and violence that threaten to engulf him, and reckons with his burgeoning homosexuality.
Director Barry Jenkins, adapting a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, chooses to use three different actors to portray his protagonist at each point in his life. It’s a risky strategy, as the different actors – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes – don’t necessarily resemble each other physically, but its a strategy that pays off, with each actor capturing the physical tics and timid soul of Chiron in a way that creates a convincing continuity.
Jenkins has cited films by such global auteurs as Claire Denis, Hou Hsiou Hsien and Wong Kar Wai as influences on Moonlight, and it is certainly refreshing to see an American independent filmmaker embrace the colour, texture and sensuality of this particular strand of world cinema. The film thrives on ambiguities and ellipses, with dizzying camerawork that is forever alert and attuned to the importance of the small coded glances and gestures of the films quiet protagonist.
Of course, films about gay black men are seldom seen on the big screen, but Jenkins, working with McCraney’s story, isn’t tempted to swing for anything grand or universal. Moonlight‘s strength lies in being content to depict a specific story; to find a single truth rather than the whole truth. Ultimately, in spite of the awards season fanfare, this is a nimble little art film, crafted with empathy and a deep understanding of its time and place.