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By Karen Han

Most music is about love. It is less about the deftness of any lyrics and more about the kinds of feelings that the right suite of notes can invoke. Music can convey what is otherwise inarticulable, and in that sense, Moonlight plays like song. It aches and it glows, and it is unlike any other movie in recent memory.

Akin to a sonata, Moonlight is built in three movements: Chiron’s childhood, teenage years, and adulthood (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, all luminous). The first movement lays out the themes and anchors of the movie in almost deceptively simple terms. Chiron is called “Little” because he is, and even at such a young age, he is subjected to bullying from his peers. He’s gentle, but everything around him indicates that he can’t be (or shouldn’t be). Juan (Mahershala Ali), the man who serves as his surrogate father, is kind, but is also his mother’s drug dealer; his best (and only) friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner), tells him he has to be tough if he doesn’t want the other kids to pick on him.

Barry Jenkins's Moonlight

The second movement brings change. What support Chiron had as a child has disappeared, which makes the preservation of his spirit, up until this point, all the more remarkable, and all the more heartbreaking when we see the last vestige of it burned away as he succumbs to and becomes a part of the system that would break him.

In the third movement, the adult Chiron is unrecognizable on a surface level; the skinny kid that he’d been has rebuilt himself in Juan’s image, down to the do-rag, and calls himself “Black.” He has made himself someone else in order to survive. But the more we see of him, the more obvious it becomes that while his outer skin has changed, what’s inside has remained the same. Even his adopted name is a reflection of that; “Black” is the nickname that Kevin gave him when they were kids.
Trevante Rhodes in Barry Jenkins's Moonlight

That sense of yearning dominates the entire film. It manifests in blues and oranges, as well as in the myriad genres of music that comprise the soundtrack. As disparate as those colors and those sounds are, they blend seamlessly under the direction of Barry Jenkins. Again, they convey the non conveyable. Words can’t be put to the vulnerability that suddenly shows through when the adult Chiron takes off his gold grill in order to eat the meal that Kevin has prepared for him, or the sight of Juan teaching Little how to swim, holding him afloat in an endless blue. Then, there’s the music, from the orchestral touches that follow Chiron in all three stages of his life, to the rap that the adult Chiron blasts in his car, to Kevin’s choice of “Hello, Stranger,” to explain why he’d called Chiron up again after all these years.

This isn’t to say that the dialogue falls flat. To the contrary: it hits hard. Each of the characters is subject to a certain repression (due to economic circumstances, race, sexuality, or all of the above) but Chiron’s inherent honesty and earnestness draw the same out in the people he interacts with, even if they don’t know how to properly express it.
Moonlight is all-encompassing, dealing with the universal pains of both familial and romantic love, as well as growing up, but it addresses more specific themes, too: growing up black in America, notions of masculinity, and homosexuality. In that sense, the song metaphor still stands. The lyrics may be specific in context or even in language, but the melody affects and is recognizable to anyone who’ll listen.

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