Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris
Running time: 111 minutes
Beautifully realised and intricately crafted, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is bold, tender, and powerful – a shining work of ground-breaking modern cinema.
Following the life of Chiron as boy (Hibbert), teen (Sanders), and man (Rhodes), Moonlight depicts the trials, tribulations and truths of a troubled existence and the struggles of identity.
Stripped down to its basic narrative components, and what you have with Moonlight is really nothing new: forbidden love within the context of a harsh, gritty, and overwhelmingly unforgiving environment, where conflicted characters are at war with themselves over who they really are. Yet, Jenkins’ film is anything but basic. In fact, this is layered work of immense richness; weaved together with the delicacy of the finest cross-stitch. And the needle for this wonderful narrative tapestry is the shy, alienated Chiron. In a similar fashion to Richard Linklater’s landmark film Boyhood, Moonlight documents Chiron’s life at equally important stages, where Chiron’s growing awareness of his sexuality makes him feel increasingly outcast. While both films astutely depict the windy, uneven road from boy to man, Chiron’s journey has far less of a randomness to it, as Jenkins pumps power and narrative relevance into almost every shot – from early baptism symbolism to deep, longing gazes from across the table of a small Miami diner. Yet, spliced amongst Moonlight’s episodes of allegorical beauty, are scenes of harrowing physical and emotional abuse, for the most part inflicted by Chiron’s crackhead mother (Naomie Harris), which provides Jenkins’ film with powerful balance, gritty realism, and real heart without ever feeling in any way manipulative.
The most important, necessary and timely elevating aspect of Moonlight however, is its reluctance to fall back on ghetto stereotypes and genre clichés. Guns are seen but never fired, drugs are there but only very fleetingly do they threaten to totally intoxicate the narrative, and sex is approached as a tender, meaningful symbol of companionship. Yes, there are times when Jenkins’ screenplay – inspired by Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play entitled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue – contains the more generic, artificial philosophical wisdoms one might expect in a traditional coming of age tale, however, Jenkins appears to exhibit a deft ability to punctuate his work with such dialogue, emotionally charged music, and elegant cinematography, yet maintain an undeniable naturalism and devastating truth to his work. And a lot of this can be attributed to the 3 in one portrayal of Chiron. Remarkable acting turns from Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes – each provided with equal screen time by Jenkins – gives Moonlight’s protagonist seamless transitions from quiet, bullied pre-teen to gangly, awkward, hurting adolescent to a smooth, muscly adult façade with a burning interior discontent. Rarely has character development of this nature felt so utterly convincing.
Elsewhere, going from Moneypenny to penny-less, Harris is magnificent as Chiron’s struggling junkie mother, Paula – in a role that is perhaps the most personal to both Jenkins and McCraney. Crucially however, Jenkins never lets us forget Paula’s underlying, unbreakable love that a mother has for her son; and her pain is undeniably present without ever the need for Jenkins to spell it out for us. Mahershala Ali, as a sympathetic, conflicted drug dealer named Juan, adds a different string to his previously macho-exclusive acting bow by offering up a quieter, and altogether deeper character examination. Despite limited screen time, Ali impresses with a graceful, understated performance of real maturity and narrative and thematic importance.
Rarely has a film with such recognised and timely themes felt so utterly original. Pitched and tuned to perfection, Moonlight is a truly astounding feat of filmmaking. With its masterful contrast lighting and use of colour, the blacks, blues and reds just might, come months end, turn to gold.