Film narratives can often be broken down into what is known as the three-act-structure, split into the setup, confrontation and resolution, or more commonly the beginning, middle and end. In what is just his second feature, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, writer and director Barry Jenkins implements this storytelling composition in a very definitive way.
The coming-of-age indie drama simply entitled Moonlight is divided into a triptych of tales. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes share the leading role of Chiron, portraying the troubled protagonist as a child, teenager and adult respectively. After being chased by school bullies in the rundown Miami neighbourhood where he resides, Chiron meets conflicted drug-dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) who offers him his support, guidance and words of wisdom. From this encounter, we watch him grow up through adversity, coping with his junkie mother Paula (Naomie Harris) and discovering his sexuality.
Although this story unfolds within an environment riddled with crime and substance abuse, the film doesn’t conform to genre tropes in the way that some would expect. Instead, the focus is on the subtleties of the complex central character’s examination, shot with a saturated neon hue. The artistic appearance and enchanting score create a rich and interesting backdrop, but the less-is-more approach to dialogue leaves the screenplay lacking the hard-hitting punch that it sometimes needs. Jenkins has ambition in abundance as he handles tough themes with grace, but aside from the stylised aesthetics and inventive structure, the plotting itself feels quite commonplace.
Strong performances bolster the material, particularly from Rhodes, who manages to maintain Chiron’s sense of vulnerability, slowly revealed from beneath his hardened exterior. As the script is rather minimalistic, he and the other core cast act with their careful expressions and mannerisms more so than their words. In some cases, this works perfectly to build the desired tone and atmosphere but other scenes can seem empty as a result of this. In their supporting parts, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe and Jharrel Jerome are particularly good, their meaningful interactions moulding Chiron’s developing personality.
Moonlight is undeniably daring cinema, with adventurous director Jenkins presenting a conventional coming-out, coming-of-age story with unique and boldly unconventional methods. Personally, I struggled to connect emotionally with what felt like a disjointed narrative, though there is definitely a great deal to admire in the quietly compelling sounds and visuals of this beautifully told urban odyssey.