by Corey Koepper
★★★★★ (OUT OF 5)
RATED R 1H 51 MIN
OCT 21 2016 DRAMA
DIRECTOR: BARRY JENKINS
Identity, and the fluidity of self that comes from constant, and often unexpected, moments of discovery, is the lifeblood of most character-driven movies. In this movie, Miami-born Barry Jenkins’ second, identity is everything.
Within the opening moments of Moonlight, where a quiet, young boy, initially referred to as “Little” (Alex Hibbert), is chased into an abandoned building by bullies armed with rocks, we already get a sense of the identity thrust upon him. “Little” Chiron, first introduced to us as a child, didn’t choose to be shy or small. He didn’t choose to live in Miami. He didn’t choose to be poor, or to be black. He didn’t choose to be fatherless. He didn’t choose to be gay.
There is usually a rift, even in good films, between what a movie is and what it’s trying to be. This is not the case with Moonlight. It is its subject, completely and wholeheartedly. Though visually unconventional, atmospheric, and consistently alluring, Jenkins’ authenticity is grounded in a reality he knows through and through, showcasing one young man’s search for his identity. It’s breathtaking to watch, and not easy to forget.
Divided into three chapters, the first being “Little,” the second “Chiron,” and the third “Black,” Moonlight immerses viewers in three different phases of Chiron’s life, each playing like an extended sequence in a limited period of time. Like Boyhood before it, which generated equal anticipation on the indie festival circuit through awards season, there are gaps in the chronology of Moonlight that enhance its naturalism – the passage of time feels realistic, because we are spared scenes that lend themselves to “A + B = C”-style explanation for how living, breathing human beings become who they are.
Moonlight, inspired by a play written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, understands this complexity through its structure. It relies on specific moments, some quiet and understated, some monumentally intense, to carry us through its central character’s early life. The performances are almost too good to describe. Naomie Harris, who plays Chiron’s crack-addicted, neglectful, and verbally abuse mother across all three sections, is excellent and unrecognizable in the most heartbreaking way.
I was reminded a bit of the framework in Aaron Sorkin’s script for Steve Jobs, in the sense that recurring people at separate moments in the lead character’s life provide a consistent line of influence. Others in Moonlight include father figure Juan (Mahershala Ali), a crack dealer who inscribes the notion of free will and the potential for happiness onto young Chiron, but who still sells drugs to Chiron’s mother, a hypocrisy that Juan feels growing within himself. Would it be possible for Juan to escape this messed up system if he practiced the epitome of what he preaches? It’s not an easy question to answer, and the film knows it.
In an excellent early scene, one that will prove to be one of Moonlight‘s most iconic, Juan teaches Chiron to swim. It is probably the first time the child has touched the ocean. Teaching Chiron how to float on his back, Juan tells him, “You are in the middle of the world.” Throughout the film we are in the middle of Chiron’s world, which Jenkins executes visually through techniques that truly emphasize how Chiron engages with the world, and how the world engages back.
In the opening moments of the film the camera circles drug dealers in constant motion, limiting their world to the heated intensity of what remains in frame. Later, we see Chiron’s mother scream at the boy in a shot that sandwiches her in their apartment hallway, as she’s flooded by the interior’s vivid colorization. We don’t hear what she shouts in this moment, only silence. But through examples of visual and auditory expressiveness like this, we understand the impact of this moment on Chiron – we feel what he feels. And as this scene recurs to him later in a dreamlike moment, triggered by another event, its impact, color and all, returns for the audience with just as much raw emotion.
Moonlight is engaging and fascinating for reasons like this. It never breaks from letting us inhabit Chiron’s space, traversing the contrasted habitats of the city’s gorgeous beaches and roughest neighborhoods. Visually, Moonlight is fluid and beautifully shot – Jenkins’ and cinematographer James Laxton’s unique decisions always enhance, rather than distract. Nicholas Britell’s gorgeous, ethereal score is equally responsible for making the story come alive.
From young Hibbert, to Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, who play Chiron in his teenage and adult years, the performances and progression of the character are incredible. Relatively unknown, the quiet complexity and nuances of the lead actors, playing an atypical character by any standard, reveal naturalistic acting capabilities that are pretty remarkable. Expressiveness of eyes, of tense or relaxed facial features, of understated body language, are absolutely essential toward the movie’s depiction of a character discovering his sexuality amidst presumed masculine standards and social expectations (ones that if violated, could cost Chiron his life).
Chiron is trapped in many ways, and what appears to be a lack of freedom shrouds the movie in relentless sadness. Moonlight is often so personal that it invokes a visceral reaction, but because it is so sensory and warm-blooded, even its toughest moments can still be watched and absorbed, as devastating as they may be.
But when exploring the fact that free will does exist, the fact that there is even a small chance for Chiron to make a decision that leads to his eventual happiness, is where Moonlight finds a glimmer of light in a world of shadows. The character of Kevin (André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, and Jaden Piner) is the man through whom Chiron begins to discover his sexuality. With Kevin he finds the potential for joy that transcends the identity that has been made for him, and forms the foundation for the identity he can make for himself. Their relationship is the line of development that the movie builds itself around, showcasing the ways in which life’s unexpected factors align to provide us something that could actually be right for us, if we choose to accept it.
There are many whose experiences will never closely resemble Chiron’s. The astounding success of Moonlight is that in under two hours, you feel his experiences as you would your own; they wash over you, and transmit through your own memories of heartbreak, yearning, and trauma. They become part of you, as your own experiences would. The movie allows you to reenter your own life with a new perspective, an outlook that fashions human relationships and connectivity in a way you might not have considered before.
Certainly 2016 will be remembered as one of the more divisive years in recent American history. Moonlight couldn’t have arrived at a better time. It’s empathy via cinema. Jenkins’ film is authentic and compassionate, an experience through someone else’s eyes that is infinitely rewarding to any viewer with an open mind and heart.
Probably the best compliment one can give a movie is that it reminds you why, at its best, cinematic storytelling exists – to connect us on a deeper level with others, the world, and ourselves.
The imagery, sound design, and performances of Moonlight are executed in a manner that makes you feel like you’re always discovering something important and new; not just about Chiron and the society that entraps him, but about people, the way we are wired, and how the search for meaning, truth, and self-honesty is a uniquely personal, yet universal journey.
If even a handful of people were to take these discoveries into the outside world after seeing Moonlight, then I think you’d find a ripple of hope, similar to the one that permeates the movie’s later moments, that would create invisible, yet undeniable, steps toward unity and healing.
Jenkins’ central character is representative of many, but there is only one Chiron. As we connect with this single individual, looking out through the forced perspective of our own eyes, an intimacy is established that is impossible to break, even after the movie ends. Specific experiences, although shared similarly amongst people, are by nature never completely unanimous. They are unique to context and to the individual partaking in them. But feelings, emotions that ring true among those who share an imperfect world, are engrained in ways that while cryptic, are widespread and relatable.
Moonlight, in its poetic unveiling of emotional honesty, embodies this idea without turning to conventional sentimentality. Instead of tugging at your heartstrings with *literal* strings, crescendoing to a musical peak at a predictably emotional climax, Jenkins is more crafty in his approach to sound and visuals. A silent image of Chiron sitting on the beach as he stares into the ocean, the only discernible escape granted to him by the world, is instantly impactful. A close-up of the sand running over his hand, a coarse reminder of the world he inhabits, doubles the impact.
Jenkins understand that imagery, when complemented by deliberate use or non-use of sound, can be the one of the most powerful tools in forging lasting emotional impact. Moonlight is an undeniably great film for this reason, and for the stunning performances that bring its story to life. It’s worth saying that “bringing its story to life” is definitely a cliché I would’ve liked to have avoided here, if not for the fact that it’s just way too appropriate. For the duration of this movie, we experience Chiron’s life. Not in its entirety, but in isolated moments that express what it means to be a person who has to choose between actually living, or simply surviving.
Sorrow underlies the truth that it is only you who can make this choice, and that usually, it is the hardest decision you’ll ever have to make. Melancholy engulfs the audience like a raging ocean in Moonlight, eventually spitting you back onshore with Chiron and the rest of the brokenhearted people of the world. It might be easy to gravitate toward a lonely, isolated sort of feeling. But while leaving the theater, with enough people to justify this metaphor, I found it more comforting to reflect on the fact that all of us, in whatever form it takes in our lives, will still be watching the tide roll in. The hard part is finding the courage to dive back in. If there is a simple message to derive from Moonlight, it’s this one.
Eight years after directing his first feature, Barry Jenkins has found an unshakable truth. People come and go, some reaching toward us, others lashing out. The ocean, linking us all, remains in place. It crashes onshore, where our feet are firmly planted. It waits for us to make a connection. Always, it will wait.