Moonlight is a coming of age tale in three acts. With a story* by acclaimed playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (Choir Boy, Head of Passes), Moonlight is written and directed by Barry Jenkins, and focuses on Chiron, a gay black boy becoming a man in an urban and drug-riddled community.
Act One: Little
We are introduced to "Little," Chiron's moniker as a young boy. (In this act, Alex Hibbert plays Chiron.) He's teased by his classmates, who taunt him by calling him gay. A latchkey kid whose mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is a drug addict, nine-year-old Little often has to fend for himself. One afternoon, he escapes the bullies by running to an abandoned flop house, where he's discovered by a local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, Smart People), making a brief but impressive appearance). Juan takes a shine to Little, who doesn't say much, and, though Juan is not exactly the perfect role model, becomes a positive male influence in Little's life. (Juan's girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), is also a positive influence, and she and her home will be a place of refuge for Little as he grows up.)
Here, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is 16 and still experiencing the bullying he endured as a kid. Things haven't gotten any easier. He's still teased (to put it mildly) for being different. We see that his friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome in this act; Jaden Piner in the first) has continued, as Kevin is the only one who does not ostracize Chiron, and actually confides in him. They share an intimate moment at the beach, but their friendship is tested when Kevin is peer-pressured into joining the bullies and attacking Chiron. (Chiron's relationship with his mother gets worse during this time, particularly as Paula's drug habit becomes more engulfing and destructive.)
Act Three: Black
When we arrive at act three, we meet Black (Trevante Rhodes), the street name Chiron has taken on as a young adult who is following in Juan's footsteps, which is to say he's become a leading drug dealer; he has not become the man Juan might have hoped he'd be. The scars of Chiron's adolescence are still deeply felt. Chiron visits his mother at a rehab facility (Harris is particularly great in this scene), and he's unable to have a real conversation with her. Perhaps it's because he still hasn't had a conversation with himself, still hasn't figured out who he is.
Indeed, when he meets with adult Kevin (an affecting Andre Holland), one of the first things Kevin notices about his almost unrecognizable friend is that he's wearing gold grills in his teeth. He asks Black, "Why you wearing those fronts?" Black is, in fact, "fronting," or pretending to be something he's not. Later in their rendezvous, Black reverts to his quite days, just staring at Kevin after being asked a question. Black is still that timid little boy, searching for his identity.
I appreciated the details in Moonlight, from the layers in the actors' performances to Caroline Eselin's costume design that speaks volumes. (One example: 16-year-old Chiron's clothes are too small. This is not a style choice. He's too tall for his jeans, and it speaks to his living situation that he can't just buy a pair that fits.)
More than that, my strongest reaction was my anger toward the bullies and my empathy for the bullied. Kids can be unspeakably cruel at the exact moments in our lives when we're most vulnerable, when we don't know who we are or who we'll become. We might know we're different, but we don't yet have the tools to figure out what that means, or how to deal with a world that continually tells us that different is bad, rather than, simply, different is different. I know I didn't have nearly the same experience as Chiron, yet I can relate to feeling like I don't belong without understanding how to cope with that feeling. It can be terrifying, and it can shade your life for years to come.
*Moonlight is based on the 2003 McCraney play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. The play has yet to be produced, but Jenkins read it in 2010, and was inspired to write Moonlight.