Review by John Bennett (@johnbennett812)
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, Duan Sanderson, Alex R. Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae
Jenkins creates a complex portrait of an individual; we see how Chiron’s quietness as a kid stems from shyness, how his quietness as a teen stems from fear, and how his quietness as an adult allows him to survey and internalise his environment. He’s a full-blooded character, and it’s a moving experience to watch him grow.
December is here. For many, this is the holiday season - a time for shopping, relaxing, and enjoying quality time with family and friends. For the cinephile, however, December means rapaciously devouring all kinds of new movies to stay au courant with the steady barrage of award ceremonies and top 10 lists. It’s around this time that critical approbation gathers behind two or three movies in particular. In 2016, one of these movies has undoubtedly been Barry Jenkins’ modest, moving Moonlight - an exceptional film that, while not quite reaching the vertiginous heights of greatness that many critics have ascribed to it, still stands on its own as a lovely, important, poetic piece of filmmaking.
Moonlight is set around Miami’s Liberty Square, an impoverished, predominantly African American neighborhood where both Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play on which the film is based, grew up. In the film, we follow Chiron (played by three actors - more on that later) through three stages of his life. As a young boy, he struggles with being bullied and has a touchy relationship with his coke-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris, doing great work). He finds parent figures in Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) - relationships that are complicated by the fact that Juan sells coke to Chiron’s mother. Chiron also develops a friendship with Kevin, a relationship with strong undertones of romantic connection. As the film progresses, we see Chiron evolve into manhood as he tries to make sense of his social difficulties, his mother’s addiction, his more-than-friendship with Kevin, and his own emergent sexuality.
Given its theatrical source material and its three-act structure, one could see how Moonlight risks being stagy. But thanks to Jenkins’ lyrical style, the three sections don’t play like theatrical acts, but rather like three movements of a symphony. The first movement - Chiron as a child - plays andante; he hesitantly tries to grasp the harshness of his world while silently welcoming the moments of grace and care lavished delicately upon him by Juan and Teresa. The second - Chiron as a teenager - is molto agitato; it’s furious and urgent as Chiron’s emotional life becomes more tumultuously complex while his environment becomes harsher and more uncompromising. The final movement - Chiron as a young adult - plays maestoso: it’s a stoic, yet penetrating sequence of Chiron and Kevin’s reestablished friendship. It shows how their connection has evolved into something still uncertain, but something that the adult mind is better equipped to interpret and appreciate. In presenting the narrative in these three tableaus, Jenkins allows his audience to truly engage with Chiron by letting us fill in the blanks. Though it’s not shown, we have an idea as to what Juan’s fate might be; we have an idea of Paula’s trajectory as an addict (her final scene with Chiron may be the film’s best); we have an idea as to what lead Chiron to his eventual career path. In making us listen to the notes that aren’t played in between Moonlight’s symphonic movements, Jenkins is able to draw us in to the complicated world that he and his actors have so skillfully created.
In sympathetically telling the story of a boy’s slow, wide-eyed coming-of-age, Moonlight functions as a sort of inverse of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. In Boyhood, one actor (Ellar Coltrane) showcased how many identities his character tried on throughout that epic of cinematic bildungsroman. In Moonlight, Jenkins manages to seamlessly direct three actors to play a character whose identity remains recognisably constant. As Chiron, three outstanding actors (Alex Hibbert as the child, Ashton Sanders as the teenager, and Trevante Rhodes as the young man) melt into one finely drawn character. All three actors are able to paint Chiron as independent, yet reluctant to engage with a harsh world. All three effectively make Chiron taciturn enough to convey that the character has a rich, sensitive inner life whose desire for expression transcends words. And though these performance consistencies remain steadfast across all three of the film’s movements, Jenkins is able to make these qualities evolve and grow to create a more complex portrait of an individual; we see how Chiron’s quietness as a kid stems from shyness, how his quietness as a teen stems from fear, and how his quietness as an adult allows him to survey and internalise his environment. He’s a full-blooded character, and it’s a moving experience to watch him grow.
The film’s emotional impact is no doubt enhanced by the ethereal glow and visual rhythm of Jenkins’ and cinematographer James Laxton’s wholly cinematic yet unobtrusive style. Through Jenkins’ and Laxton’s eyes, the fluorescent lighting of a crumbling project-housing bathroom transforms from something mundane into an electric blue x-ray of a lonely soul. And similarly banal fluorescent lights, in the film’s final segment, turn an old friend’s small apartment into an insular universe of strong, warm, uncertain feelings. Jenkins’ camera can be astoundingly mobile: in one of the film’s best shots, Terrell (Patrick Decile), Chiron’s main antagonist, stalks his prey like a tiger preparing to pounce as the camera gracefully swoops to capture the cruel ballet of schoolyard power. Shots like these serve as counterpoints to static shots of the adult Chiron and Kevin - shots that allow the emotions of their reconnection to slowly build in their calm, tender intensity.
Moonlight is not without its flaws. Despite all of its depth, some of the film’s foundational ideas seem slightly contrived. Young Chiron’s relationship with Juan plays a little too cute, and the third movement stretches its credibility by functioning as a romantic fantasy where the first two functioned as works of lyrical realism. But these are minor quibbles. It’s refreshing to see a drug-dealer character like Juan portrayed as not being inherently bad: we can see that he does what he does out of financial necessity. And even if Chiron’s final scenes with Kevin are slightly too theatrical and fairytale-like compared to the rest of the film, Moonlight’s final segment nevertheless maintains its commitment to showing a beautiful character continue to grow and learn in a beautiful way.
Moonlight has been enjoying a lot of success in the States; critics have heaped lavish praise on the film, and it has nearly earned back twice its $5 million budget as its distribution has ballooned from limited to wider release. This success is important in two ways. First, it represents a boon to independent film, and it shows that audiences have a strong appetite for unassuming, intelligent fare. Secondly (and more importantly) Moonlight’s success represents a nuanced celebration of diversity. 25 years ago, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust, another lyrical movie that intelligently examined a facet of the African American experience, was released to some modest critical acclaim. Now, just as that film has been deemed meritorious enough for a new 4K restoration, Moonlight is poised to be a major Oscar contender. Moonlight’s success reminds us of how bold filmmakers like Dash and Jenkins have helped us evolve as socially aware and engaged filmgoers - and Moonlight will prove a symbol of that evolution.
Moonlight is in cinemas February 24th 2017.