| Chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.
Moonlight is a beautifully written, superbly acted and confidently directed film about the steps and missteps taken in life by its lead character, Chiron. The pressures on him from without and from within are vividly, viscerally portrayed. All three acts of the film possess moments of tenderness, optimism and heartbreak, sometimes simultaneously. It speaks to the fragility of life for Chiron, who has the bare essentials to rely on but little else, and how so often the things that leave the biggest imprints on our lives are both good and sad.
Jenkins experiments with a whole host of techniques, mostly visual but also in the form of Nicholas Britell’s fragmented orchestral score, which sneaks in and out of the film as emotional punctuation, and in many instances completely disappears to leave the viewer with contemplative silence. There are also echos of Terrence Malick and Lynne Ramsay in Moonlight with every extreme closeup a provocation to feel and absorb. There’s an intimacy to Jenkins’ approach and to the story as a whole that the film’s vignette structure would seem to prohibit, but Jenkins is able to generate a profound amount of sympathy for Chiron almost instantaneously. His quiet, non-verbal nature in all three life stages gives us ample time to consider his point of view and participate in his journey of self-discovery.
The adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s theatrical play, is anything but dour. Poignantly concise, Jenkins instead dwells on the vastness of what is left unsaid, as Chiron struggles with the various performances of masculinity thrust upon him by his socioeconomic status throughout the three chapters of his life, and the multitudes of physical and emotional abuse he’s still beset by. For a film with so little dialogue, the wealth of feeling Moonlight conveys is staggering. This affective infectiousness is thanks largely to cinematographer James Laxton’s harsh contrast between the glaring sharpness of daylight, and the vulnerability and exposure it brings, and the meditative treatment of light and shade solace of nighttime, when Chiron can finally find peace.
“At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
The movie would be lost without the phenomenal work of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, portraying Chiron in his youth, adolescence, and young adulthood respectfully. Although the three actors are fairly physically dissimilar, Jenkins stated in an interview that the three were cast for having the same haunted eyes, and it’s a bold, wholly lucrative creative choice. All three actors are astonishingly magnetic, bleeding out Chiron’s soul in their silence, averted glances, and shrunken nonchalance betraying such a depth of longing. In Chiron’s foundational relationship with childhood friend Kevin (equally majestically essayed by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland), the three sets of actors concoct mutually overlapping character arcs that capture some of the year’s most jubilant and heartbreaking moments, while always tenderly believable.
My gripes with Moonlight are in the second act, there is a plot device that really felt out-of-place. It took me out of the moment, but it later managed to pull me right back in. Also, the creative decision behind the ending didn’t sit well with me. Throughout the movie, Jenkins’ direction kept everything clear, precise, and direct. He didn’t feel the need to embellish any scene, which I loved. However, this made the final scene feel somewhat dry and anticlimactic. Again, I understand why it ended in this way, but the payoff just wasn’t what I wanted it to be. By reading the screenplay I noticed this ending was decided during the editing process. The scene that’s written in the screenplay, although it had beautiful word play, was a worse and more cheesy pay off.
Moonlight isn’t the traditional story you would come to expect from a film, but it is a powerful one that quietly builds on the words that should have been spoken until they are finally said. The performances are heartfelt, and intense, and real in the way that you not only believe but know that this world and the people who inhabit it are just around the corner. It may be a small self-contained story, but it is a heartfelt story and one that is maybe often heard but never seen, especially through the eyes of those who live that reality.
‘Moonlight’ gets an 8.8/10.
Shot on 35's Rating Sheet: 9.5 – 10.0: Excellent! 8.5 – 9.5: Fantastic, but with minor flaws 7.5 – 8.5: Great, but with issues 6.5 – 7.5: Okay, but with major issues 5.5 – 6.5: Had potential, but falls flat hard. 4.5 – 5.5: Disaster!