Moonlight represents the end product of a collaboration between Barry Jenkins who wrote the screenplay based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Moonlight is divided into three segments, first focusing on a young African-American boy named Chiron (whose nickname is “Little” in the first segment). When we first meet Little, he’s run away from home, alienated from his crack-addicted, abusive mother, Paula. A crack dealer named Juan discovers Little inside an abandoned motel and after learning he’s been the victim of bullies, he brings him to the home of his girlfriend, Theresa. Little is mute until he opens up the next morning and tells the couple where he lives.
Juan eventually forms a relationship with Little, acting as a mentor, despite hostility from the boy’s mother. Unfortunately, Juan plays no part in the rest of the film and we eventually learn in the last segment that he’s no longer alive. Despite the lugubrious pacing, Moonlight chronicles the tragedy of how drugs can play such a ruinous part in the lives of African-American men and women, residing in the inner city.
Just at the right moment, Jenkins introduces Chiron as a teenager in the second segment. Here he is referred to by his true name. The withdrawn child is now a withdrawn teenager who is still coping with his crackhead of a mother and is taunted by other teens who regard him as not only passive but possibly homosexual. Jenkins isn’t afraid to chronicle additional problems in the African-American community, especially the scourge of bullying.
The story becomes more interesting when Chiron hooks up with his old childhood friend, Kevin, who leads him to a homosexual encounter on the beach. There’s more drama when Kevin participates in a hazing ritual, betraying Chiron by slugging him a number of times in the face, at the behest of the usual suspects of high school bullies. When Chiron smashes a chair over the bully in front of his high school class, he’s taken away by the police and placed in a juvenile detention center.
The third segment focuses on Chiron ten years later—he goes by the name of “Black,” an appellation given to him by Kevin when he was in high school. Jenkins makes the mistake of casting the older Chiron with an actor who doesn’t resemble the younger high school student Chiron, at all. We find out next to nothing about the older Chiron, except that he’s now a hardened drug dealer living in Atlanta.
After getting a phone call from Kevin, who now works as a cook in Miami, Black goes to visit him there. He first visits his mother who is now a resident at a nursing home and begs his forgiveness for her earlier deleterious behavior. Naomie Harris does a fine job as the repentant mother and the son hugs her, still acknowledging their bond.
Once Black walks into the small restaurant where Kevin now works, the story is virtually over. You can guess what happens next: Black acknowledges that he’s been alone since their encounter in high school—and he agrees to send the night with Kevin, who still has feelings for him, despite having a child with a woman from whom he is now separated.
Moonlight really runs out of gas in the third act, as Black (Chiron) remains a completely underdeveloped character. The reconciliation, highlighted by tender feelings between two men, is simply not enough to bring the story to a fitful conclusion. Jenkins’ final 30 minutes is dragged out where there are no surprises. Moonlight has quite a bit of atmosphere (particularly in the first two acts) and some raw performances (particularly by the child actors), but ultimately the denouement was not thought out clearly enough to pass muster as a film rated almost 100 by an overwhelming majority of major film critics.