"At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you," Miami drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) tells nine-year-old Little (Alex Hibbert). They're warm words of wisdom offered by someone who wouldn't be seen as a substitute father figure in most movies — and given to a shy, bullied boy desperately in need of a guiding hand. Their connection, defying expectations and complicated by Little's crack-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris), forms much of Moonlight's first chapter, but their interactions will influence the entire film.
As the story progresses, Little grows into awkward teenager Chiron (played by Ashton Sanders), a young man who still struggles with who he is and how he feels. Then, finally, he transforms into the hardened, Atlanta-based Black (Trevante Rhodes), styling himself in Juan's image. He'll keep trying to forge his identity, while grappling with the different visions of masculinity around him, as well as his own sexuality. As he comes of age, he'll also be shaped by his mother's troubles, the nurturing presence of Juan's girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), and his friendship with his classmate Kevin (played by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland over the years).
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins from an unstaged play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is a film of moments and mindsets, one that values sensations and textures more than any other storytelling tool. Jenkins constructs the emotions and experiences of his protagonist from the people, places, dreams and encounters that define him at any given point, plus his ongoing quest to find a persona, a companion, and a space that provides comfort and solace. Narrative-wise, it might sound slight. Thematically, visually and in its performances, Moonlight is a powerhouse.
Stressing how things left unseen and unsaid are as crucial as sights glimpsed and words uttered, every frame, look and line of dialogue proves a piece of the puzzle that is Chiron in his various guises. Often, Jenkins and his college roommate turned cinematographer James Laxton make the audience stare into the eyes of their leads, conveying a pain and a yearning that borders on contagious. More frequently, the filmmaking team adopts their character's perspective, gazing into a world teeming with uncertainty. Subjectivity reigns, such as when the dialogue and imagery fall out of synch during moments of distress, or when a painful memory is cast in heightened, almost neon hues. Even when the film peers in from the outside, the little things still matter, be it green blades of grass spied up close, a hand grasping at sand during an intimate exchange, or a man removing the armour-like grill from his teeth.
Jenkins seamlessly brings all of the above together, creating a cinematic symphony of the patterns and rhythms that come with deciding who you're going to be. However, he also crafts a sensitive stage for his three lead actors to infuse their protagonist with heart and soul, as a poor, black, queer boy becomes a man. Though matched in every scene by exceptional co-stars — including the charismatic, stereotype-defying work of Ali, as well as the quiet tenderness of Holland — the main trio are never anything less than devastating.