Moonlight is a luminous coming-of-age heartbreaker - review

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Moonlight
Alex Hibbert in Barry Jenkins' Oscar-nominated Moonlight Credit: A24/David Bornfriend

Director: Barry Jenkins; Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner. 15 cert, 111 mins.

Watching Moonlight is like bearing witness to a form of cinematic nuclear fission. It’s a film mostly made up of moments so slight and delicate they’re almost sub-molecular – but when slammed together, they release enough heat and light to swallow whole cities at a stroke. 

Barry Jenkins’ film, which is both an awards-season stalwart and an honest-to-goodness cinematic landmark, is about a boy called Chiron growing up gay and black in present-day Miami. It was adapted from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, in which the three characters on stage – a boy, a teenager and a young man, each wrestling with questions of identity over the course of a day – are slowly revealed to be the same person.

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Jenkins has tidied up the structure – the three slim windows on Chiron’s life are presented in chronological order, rather than concurrently. But the idea that one soul can move between three bodies – and that it’s possible to look back on who we used to be and see a different person looking back – remains central, and essential, to the work.

Three bodies means three actors – or rather six, because Chiron’s life is shaped in no small part by his classmate Kevin, who plays a recurring and thrillingly hard-to-second-guess role in every act. (The three pairs of Chirons and Kevins – Alex R. Hibbert and Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome, and Trevante Rhodes and André Holland – couldn’t imaginably be more perfect, or perfectly matched.)

Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight Credit: A24/David Bornfriend

It also matters that at each stage of his life, Chiron is known by whatever name other people decide to call him. As a youngster he has the diminishing nickname Little, whereas in young adulthood he’s known as Black.

“At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you’re going to be,” advises Juan, a mid-ranking drug dealer who finds young Little hiding from bullies on a dilapidated housing estate and takes a paternal shine to him. Juan is superbly played by the House of Cards actor Mahershala Ali in an Oscar-nominated performance that radiates an unaffected, worldly charm, but doesn’t sentimentalise his lot.

Naomie Harris in Moonlight Credit: A24

For one thing, he is the source of the crack cocaine smoked by Little’s mother Paula (a blazingly on-form, also Oscar-nominated Naomie Harris) – a habit she funds through prostitution. It’s a potentially melodramatic scenario conveyed with an astonishing economy of expression – just a few loaded lines of dialogue and a pink light behind her bedroom door at night. 

Amid this instability – and despite support from Juan and his level-headed girlfriend Teresa (an impressive Janelle Monáe) – we realise Little would rather defer the business of working out who he is for as long as possible. He’s aware the answer may bring heartbreak. His classmates bully him because they recognise, or at least suspect, he’s gay – as in fact does he, but only hazily, in the bristling moment. The confusion arises partly because in his life, male intimacy of any sort is an unknown quantity.

Ashton Sanders in Moonlight Credit: A24/David Bornfriend

In a luminous, almost fairy-tale sequence that’s one of many ideal showcases for Nicholas Britell’s lilting score, Juan takes Little to the beach to teach him how to swim – and we see him cradling this skinny, vulnerable child as the waves swell on all sides and storm clouds throb on the horizon. Later, in teenage Chiron’s story, the beach will reappear as the site of another formative encounter, this time shared with Kevin. Like the swimming lesson, it’s an event that somehow seems to hang outside of time.

Later still, Chiron’s life takes a turn that’s somehow both unexpected yet inevitable in retrospect – though a reunion with Kevin in a diner gives us soft hope for whatever might come next. It’s simply a miraculous scene, with all the poetry and precision of Wong Kar-wai or Lynne Ramsay. At this stage, he is of course calling himself Black, a name that more or less demands the world engage with him on certain terms, which are reinforced by his chains and do-rag and sheer, gym-honed physical bulk. But as he and Kevin talk, the years and posturing both start to fall away, and the moment becomes all that matters – two people, whoever they are, connecting.