An Emotional, Artful, Human Examination of the Heart
Painful, aching, and filled with both unique and universal truths, writer and director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a devastatingly honest piece of art.
Told in three parts, Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, a young African American man grappling with his homosexuality and being shaped by both the damaging actions of the people around him and his own irreversible choices. Jumping from a time in his childhood to his teenage years to his adult life, Jenkins’ film is sharply focused on the questions of identity and what intolerance and trauma do to those who are most vulnerable.
Adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney and with a screenplay written by Jenkins, Moonlight is an assured and multifaceted film that deserves to be poured over and discussed in the utmost detail. But its countless layers and incredibly emotional narrative can only be given so much justice in a relatively brief and spoiler-light review. Suffice it to say that Moonlight captivates through its humanity, with so many small and big moments weaving together to form the tapestry of a painful, heartbreaking life. Its emotional crescendos and melancholic valleys are utterly earned and the way both happiness and heartache hang on single moments, words, and gazes is enough to be as intense as any thriller or horror film, yet far more honest.
This is a person hanging in the balance. Not life or death, but love and self-acceptance, which dictate far more in life than many are willing to admit.
While adapted from a play, Moonlight certainly doesn’t feel like it. Rather, it feels more like the most exquisitely shot documentary you’ve ever seen. Recurring visual motifs, hypnotic camerawork, and provocative use of color add even more to the captivating acting on display. When mixed with composer Nicholas Britell’s use of chopped and screwed orchestral score, these artistic blends make Moonlight feel like a distinct, irreplaceable film experience.
For all its artistic flourishes, what makes Jenkins’ film so stunning is the potent, deeply wounded heart that beats with every scene. Far too many filmmakers wishing to show off their craft and finely tune every element of their picture sacrifice real emotion and meaning for wonderfully executed but cold artifice. In Moonlight, every camera movement, every color choice, every storytelling beat is brimming with purpose and humanity. It’s a film that walks a fine line, constantly impressing and catching you off guard with its artistic choices, yet never losing focus on the emotional core of its story and characters.
In choosing to tell the story of Chiron at three extremely pivotal times in life, Jenkins uses three very different actors at varying ages in order to show the true toll of time, choices, loss, and hardship. It’s clear in his casting choices that Jenkins was not interested in choosing actors who looked completely like one another, but rather in finding young men who could bring an emotionally cohesive and moving portrait. The result is a bold distinction between all three that emphasizes the ways in which Chiron has changed throughout life.
As child Chiron, Alex Hibbert is quiet, wounded, and keenly observant of everything around him. He says multitudes with his eyes and the few lines that he speaks, yet we quickly come to sympathize with a boy who is being raised by an addict mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), and whose homosexuality is a mystery to him and a cause for violence from nearly everyone else. Teenage Chiron is played by Ashton Sanders, whose wire-thin frame and unsure demeanor breathe life into a young man at an age where sexuality comes to the forefront and the choices being made will forever impact life. Finally, adult Chiron is brought to life by Trevante Rhodes, whose massive, muscular frame and hard edge show just how much a harsh life and persecution related to his sexuality have changed him. Yet Rhodes shows a great many layers to Chiron beneath is hardened exterior, connecting him to the many moments seen previously. While Rhodes may have the most to do and the most crucial role to play as Chiron, all three actors form a vivid and heart-wrenching portrayal of a young man whose continued traumas and abuse have closed him off from all sense of love and acceptance in the world.
Chiron himself is most impacted by four characters in what amounts to a very tightly focused screenplay. As his drug addicted mother Paula, Harris shows the emotional toll of addiction. It’s Chiron who suffers the most due to her inability to provide love and stability in his most difficult of moments, yet she’s never a cardboard cutout of a character, despite the damage that she inflicts. In the role of surrogate father Juan is Mahershala Ali, a drug dealer who unexpectedly takes Chiron under his wing and influences him in far greater ways than he wanted or realized. Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) becomes a mother figure in place of the one that he should have, trying to provide him with as much nurture and care as she can in her limited capacity.
Finally, there’s Kevin, the friend who grows up with Chiron and comes to define much of the latter parts of his life. Like Chiron, Kevin is played by three different actors: Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland. It’s Kevin who has the power to both harm and heal Chiron, with a conversation between the two adult versions of the character taking up the majority of the film’s final act. It’s an intensely quiet, tautly focused way to finish a film that has shown so many different phases of life already, but it’s built upon the emotional stakes of everything that has come before. Both Rhodes and Holland are spectacular as the two characters, saying so much with so little and bringing both devastation and catharsis through their handle on the characters.
And its character that comes above all else in Moonlight. With its time jumps and refusal to spell out the histories of characters or what has occurred in the unseen years, Jenkins’ forcefully rejects traditional narrative storytelling in favor of honing in on Chiron’s character. That untraditional and sometimes frustrating refusal to play by standard structure may infuriate some to the point of disconnecting with the story, but those who key into the inner life of the central character will be greatly moved by seemingly minor moments that are, in truth, emotional tidal waves.
With his unflinching portrayal of growing up homosexual in the black community and an ability to speak truths about the need for love and acceptance, Jenkins has created a film that represents a community that is far too underrepresented in film and can also touch the hearts of those with no personal connection to its subject matter.
What I’m saying is Moonlight is a masterpiece.