“Moonlight” is magnificent—beautiful, ambitious, and unexpected. Writer/director Barry Jenkins directs with so much precision and tenderness. James Laxton’s cinematography is fluid and graceful, giving the film a raw urgency and lyrical dreaminess. I sat in my seat transfixed, in awe. About halfway through I thought to myself: “I can’t wait to see this again.” I’m being hyperbolic, I know, but I can’t help it. “Moonlight” deserves all the hyperbole it can get. It’s the first movie of 2016 that I can strongly recommend to everybody.
The genius of “Moonlight” is that it’s both universal and very specific. Anyone in the audience can relate to what’s happening. The film is about identity and growing up, trying to find out who you are and your place in the world. It’s about the pressures of masculinity, the pressures of trying to fit in and be something your not. How your surrounding environment and social circumstances can push you down a path you didn’t expect to go in the first place.
“Moonlight” distills all of those universal quandaries into a very particular experience—the life of an African American male in the inner city. Furthermore, Jenkins portrays this experience in a fresher light. The film is about the growth and development of a black sensitive gay male in the inner city, coming to terms with his sexuality and identity.
“Moonlight” challenges clichés and stereotypes (perpetuated by the Mass Media, politicians and other films) associated with inner city life and African Americans without totally ignoring them. Right off the bat it challenges our expectations. After conversing with one of his underlings, a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, affectionate, understatedly cool) stumbles upon a shy kid named Chiron (Alex R Hibbert) hiding in an abandoned apartment complex. Instead of ignoring the boy or greeting him with hostility, Juan approaches the boy gently and asks him if he wants to get lunch and before long he becomes a father figure to Chiron, giving him life advice and a refuge away from his drug addicted single mother Paula (Naomi Harris).
Jenkins is aware of the usual things we think of when talking about the inner city. Drug use, violence, broken homes etc. are in the film but they don’t dominate the narrative, or they’re addressed in new and intriguing ways. For example, the sad irony that Juan ends up being the caring parental figure that Paula isn’t when he’s the one who’s selling her drugs in the first place.
Instead of flooding the film with scenes of gang violence or intense drug use (contrary to what Donald Trump may think, the inner city isn’t solely defined by those characteristics) Jenkins focuses on quiet, thoughtful and unanticipated moments, such as Juan teaching Chiron how to swim (one of film’s most tender, beautiful scenes.) or telling Chiron that it’s OK to be gay. As such, “Moonlight” is unexpected at every turn.
The picture is divided into three parts, each one focusing on a different chapter in Chiron’s life. In the second chapter, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is a skinny, awkward teenager, enduring all the pressures of adolescence, including his first sexual experience and a heartbreaking moment of humiliation. In the third chapter he’s a young adult drug dealer (Trevante Rhodes), scarred by past experiences and still trying to find himself, but able to find some temporary peace in the comfort of an old friend.
The transitions between chapters are abrupt; a lot of time and activity has passed. Though the narrative unfolds in a natural and relaxed way as though nothing has happened. Jenkins doesn’t spoon-feed or blandly recap information to the audience. We find out about major off screen events (the death of a major character, for example) through casual conversation or subtle implications. In this way, “Moonlight” is more concerned with the small, understated moments in-between the “big” moments, both avoiding melodrama and clichés.
The acting is fantastic overall but I want to give special attention to the three young actors who portray Chiron. It’s a seamless transition. In Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” the same actors portrayed the same characters over the course of twelve years, an impressive feat. However, the work here is slightly more impressive because three different people have to play the same character. Each performance manages to be distinctive (as you grow up you change) while also retaining similar qualities and mannerisms to create cohesion.
In the third chapter, when we see Chiron for the first time (bulked up and intimidating, very different from the skinny adolescent he once was) it’s almost jaw dropping. Though as the chapter goes on, through his interactions with an old friend/lover Kevin (Andre Holland), we see that beneath his tough exterior is the same awkward and confused kid he was in the previous chapters. When we grow up we often change drastically, yet there’s still a part of us that remains constant and recognizable no matter how old we get.
There’s much more I could discuss but I think this review is long enough. Simply put: “Moonlight” is the best film I’ve seen all year, familiar yet surprising, epic yet intimate, challenging yet accessible.