Less than one month ago, audiences were “treated” to The Birth of a Nation. Writer/Director/Star Nate Parker selfishly took advantage of the struggles of his people during slavery in order to create a trite vanity project for himself. It was yet another film that placed African Americans in subservient roles to garner awards attention, and this time, people saw through it. It is time for a change of pace. It is time for Moonlight, an emotional powerhouse hell-bent on capturing colorblind human experiences.
The film is told in three chapters that each chronicle the life of Chiron (Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert). He’s a young man who from a very early age struggles with his sexual identity in a world that has very little tolerance for it. Many of his classmates are homophobic, his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is a drug addict, and any romantic prospects are, to put it kindly, limited. That said, there are a few folks who do show him kindness, namely surprisingly wise drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe).
Moonlight could have very easily fallen apart under the eye of a heavy-handed director. Fortunately, Barry Jenkins is a revelation behind the camera, acting less as a messenger and more as an observer. He isn’t afraid to let several lengthy sequences breathe, allowing his magnificent actors to give restrained and authentic performances. This sense of pacing is critically important, especially when some of his writing occasionally clashes with the subdued tone. There are several wordy monologues that would feel more at home on the stage than the screen. They’re delivered well, but occasionally it feels like the film has to stop to dump them onto the audience. With that said, a stage version of this story would likely be spectacular.
It is a nearly impossible task to have three different actors of vastly different ages take on the same character, and not jar the audience. As such, it is all the more impressive that Rhodes, Sanders, and Hibbert each create cohesive pieces of the whole that is Chiron. It is fascinating to watch Rhodes’ borderline catatonic child transform into Sanders’ awkward ticking time bomb adolescent and then into Hibbert’s tragically closed off adult. Although this is a huge acting challenge, there is nothing showy or stereotypical about these performances. While the story is largely centered around Chiron’s sexuality, these actors ensure that element isn’t all there is to him. They’re very subtle, and that’s what makes them so compelling. Meanwhile, Ali and Harris deliver nomination-worthy supporting turns. Ali, who is not in the film nearly enough, is charismatic and wise but deeply flawed. Harris, giving the most emotionally raw turn in the film, has a couple moments of heartbreaking dependancy. She’s not the stereotypical absent-minded mother we see in so many films like this. This is a woman who is hurting desperately and doesn’t realize what she is neglecting until it might be too late.
This is also one of the most gorgeous looking movies of the year, and it doesn’t contain a single special effect. Cinematographer James Laxton does some absolutely masterful work here. There is not a single wasted shot, with every frame either dynamically moving the camera, or capturing mosaic-like beauty in the most everyday circumstances. Even the color scheme here is meticulously crafted, with a palpable dark blue aesthetic that gives everything a grimy but artisanal aesthetic. It is an achievement that will likely be fawned over by aspiring cameramen for years to come.
However, for as strong a piece of work as Moonlight is, it does hit several false notes along the way. In an effort to transition from chapter to chapter quickly, Jenkins often cheats his audience out of some key emotional moments. These transitions, much like the monologues, are very stagey. When we come back from our “intermission,” we hear about several beats that would have been more impactful if seen. As such, everything leads into a bit of an anticlimax. The film hits a very key high note, and then abruptly ends before letting that note linger for a while. It would not be surprising to see an extended edition of this film somewhere down the line, and particularly in the case of the second and third chapters, there’s likely some great material on the cutting room floor.
Although Moonlight ultimately comes up a bit short of fully delivering on its powerful message, it is still a refreshing and beautifully crafted piece of work. Jenkins emerges as a potent filmmaker with a whole lot on his mind, creating what will likely be considered one of the strongest films about the LGBT community. It’s a movie that represents what Hollywood should be striving towards. The entry of different (non Anglo Saxon) perspectives, stories centered on emotion instead of action, and thought provoking content that warrants a second watch to fully soak in. If that’s your cup of tea, grab that tea, a blanket, and a friend you cry with, and bask under the Moonlight.