Film Review – Moonlight
Moonlight (2016) does the thing that many great pictures do: it places us right into the mindset of a character and lets us see the world through their eyes. I’m not a black man, I didn’t grow up in the rough areas of Miami, and I’m not gay. But writer/director Barry Jenkins does such a superb job of pulling back the curtain to show a fully fledged character that to not understand the life depicted here is to not have humanity. This is a young person in search of self, lost amid a torrent of drugs, violence, and homophobia.
The last project I saw from Jenkins was Medicine for Melancholy (2008), which told the story of two people waking up after a one-night stand and learning more about each other the following day. While there was plenty of potential there, it also had a roughness around the edges that’s indicative of a filmmaker trying to find their voice. Jenkins has fully bloomed with Moonlight, displaying a narrative finesse developed through talent and experience. The power lies in his patience; he allows scenes to develop gradually without ever losing our attention. He fills key scenes with the strength of suggestion – these are characters that don’t always have the right thing to say, but Jenkin’s slick camerawork (cinematography by James Laxton) and perfectly timed editing (Joi McMillon/Nat Sanders) captures moments and facial expressions with such lyrical observation that we understand character thoughts as though witnessed through a dream. Memories stick in slow motion, replaying over and over again like a broken record.
We follow the life of Chiron through three different ages – as a child (Alex R. Hibbert), as a teenager (Ashton Sanders), and as an adult (Trevante Rhodes). The three actors who portray Chiron don’t look much alike, but the emotional arc that Jenkins takes the character through binds them together. By splitting up Chiron into three different points, we get an overview of how his environment has shaped him. He lives with a drug addicted mother (Naomie Harris), and the only positive male role model he has is a local drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). Early on, Chiron senses there’s something different about him compared to other kids. While he can’t put it into words, we quickly gather that he’s gay. This confuses him in different ways. While Juan tries to comfort him and tell him it’s ok to be gay, Chiron has difficulty processing a positive message from a man who sells drugs. There’s also the problem of growing up in a community that has strong homophobia embedded in the culture. His days at school feature constant harassment from bullies.
As a means of escape, Chiron turns within himself. He’s such a quiet character – barely speaking full sentences at any point of his life. Those closest to him are Juan’s lover Teresa (Janelle Monae), and Kevin his lifelong friend. Like Chiron, Kevin is depicted at three different ages as well (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland). Not only does Kevin turn out to be a confidant for Chiron, he’s also Chiron’s central romantic interest. Jenkins navigates this relationship with naturalistic subtlety. The way the two are drawn to each other, filled with clumsy awkwardness, has an authentic tinge to it. Neither of them knows how to process their feelings at such a young age (who would?), and the environment they live in is practically built to shame them for it. This dynamic is the main focus of Chiron’s life, everything he goes through and the man he becomes is based on his interaction with Kevin.
Some might see this and compare to it Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) which also followed a young person through different ages. Moonlight is better in the way Jenkins shows us how pivotal moments cause a ripple effect in a person’s psyche. The final third is the strongest, because we can see how everything that has happened helped mold Chiron into an adult. His lack of positive re-enforcement, combined with a distorted view of what it means to be a “man” forced Chiron down a path that is heartbreaking. The real sadness is how Chiron is unable to cope with his feelings. He’s unable to let his true side come to light: he is playing a self-appointed role, hiding in plain sight. Of the three actors who play Chiron, Trevante Rhodes has the benefit of a full life behind his iteration. Ashton Sanders plays the role with anger and confusion (very well, I might add), but Rhodes plays the adult version with a hardened longing. We know there is tenderness inside him, but it’s covered by a metal shield.
There’s a scene towards the end where Chiron and Kevin have a kind of “reunion.” The acting and direction in this extended sequence is some of the best you’ll see this year. Notice how Jenkins cuts between the two characters at just the right moment to see a certain look, or how Chiron and Kevin use minor language to dance around what both are really thinking about. It’s a fantastic example of underplaying a scene to create a stronger dramatic effect. Rhodes and Holland are excellent together, going back and forth like two dancers in perfect sync. Jenkins never goes for the big, over the top emotional speeches, and the film is all the better for it. And to top it off, Jenkins ends on a final image that’s so pitch perfect it would make Francois Truffaut proud.
Nearly all stories revolve around the same basic question: “Who am I?” The tragedy of Moonlight is seeing a character grapple with that question far longer than they should have. This is a story of the pain and struggle of identity, but through it all we come to find something that’s powerful, moving, and beautiful.