Sometimes a perspective comes along so fresh that you didn’t even know you needed it until it’s right in front of you.
That’s what director Barry Jenkins has made with Moonlight, a new take on the familiar “coming of age” narrative that transports viewers wholly into the world of its protagonist. Moonlight is a triumph of story and artistry which uses every tool at its disposal to move and capture the audience in exactly the way it wants. When the film wants you to inhabit the mind of a character, it will put you there. When it wants you to be an observer and just let the story unfold before you, it will push you back. If we were discussing screenplay alone, Moonlight would still be brilliant and original. But beyond just the written word, the performances, visuals, and sound all work in tandem to allow the viewer a temporary vacation into someone else’s life, within which they may find familiar ground.
Moonlight tells the story of the life of Chiron (played at different ages by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Travante Rhodes), a gay black man growing up in the slums of Miami Beach during War on Drugs-induced poverty. The story is told through three different sections: We first meet Chiron as a scared child hiding out from the bullies in his school; next we see him as a teenager, awkwardly developing and confused about his life. Finally, we find him as a grown man, attempting to reconnect with a voice from his past. Through these three sections, there are a few constant presences: Chiron’s addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris) and his friend-maybe-more Kevin (also played at different ages by Jaden Piner, Jharell Jerome, and Andre Holland). At a young age, Chiron figures out the complexities of his life with the help of his reluctant drug-dealing mentor Juan (Luke Cage’s Mahershala Ali) and his loving girlfriend Teresa (the screen debut of Janelle Monae). But he still struggles even as an adult to understand who he is and what his place is in the world.
Most directly, Moonlight questions the ideals of masculinity, especially within the African-American community. From childhood, Chiron’s masculinity is challenged in innuendo-laden terms of “soft” and “hard”, until he grows as hard he possibly can, but softens the second he’s real with himself. Adult Chiron models himself after Juan, the only undoubtedly masculine figure in his life. But Juan is shown to be immediately sensitive, even tender, when he finds a scared little boy hiding in a dope house. The film hits and hits hard when it needs to, especially in the first third when Chiron and his mother force Juan to face some difficult questions about what he does to his community, and what little choice he has. But this isn’t about Juan; it’s about Chiron. And Chiron grows up to be the embodiment of masculinity in his world, which the film doesn’t challenge even when he breaks kayfabe and allows his vulnerability to Kevin. Vulnerability is masculinity, Moonlight posits.
More than many other films, Moonlight is fully aware of the relationship film has with its audience, and fully exploits it. Jenkins will draw us inside of Chiron’s brain just long enough for us to keep from overstaying our welcome, but intentionally will block enough information to make us wonder if we’re projecting ourselves onto it. For example, a quick shot of the door to the diner where adult Chiron reunites with Kevin holds just enough for us to understand that Chiron is considering bailing. His fight-or-flight reflex is triggered, and in that moment, so is ours. Young Chiron is yelled at by his mother, but the classical composition of the score drowns her out, so we’re only left with the slur we’re pretty sure we read her lips saying. (In a few minutes, our assumptions are confirmed, but it’s enough to make us wonder.)
There are constant transitions in camera technique, but they flow so smoothly that they’re not perceptible unless you’re looking for them. The film is steady and smooth when we’re meant to see it as an observable event we’re peering in on, but shaky and erratic when we’re going inside of Chiron’s existence. The film revels in closeness: intimately close when there’s love and tenderness reflected on screen, uncomfortably close when there’s hatred or fear. The score, full of rich and full classical strings, fades into the dissonance of an orchestra warming up when teen Chiron goes on the warpath. Jenkins, along with composer Nicholas Britell and cinematographer James Laxton, does more than reflect the emotions of the scene, he creates subtle visual clues for basic elements of humanity.
Most impressively, this film is comfortable in letting nothing happen for a bit, letting its characters sit and breath while the gravity of the situation washes over us.
The flirtation and fear between adult Chiron and adult Kevin meeting in a diner meets an emotional tone which is equally yet opposingly matched by the anger and confusion young Chiron experiences when he realizes how Juan makes money. There are intimate moments of silence, where the various performers let the moment take over their faces, and dialogue which flows naturally and poetically. The movie trusts its connection to us, and is comfortable letting emotions hang the way you may be comfortable sitting in silence with loved ones.
Moonlight is more than just a new voice we never hear from; it’s a sensory experience. It tells a story which never gets told, and does so by bringing us all the way into it. This is Chiron’s world, but it’s also a world we share. The film doesn’t hammer that point in because it doesn’t need to. It just needs to tell its black gay gangster love story and bring us close enough to see ourselves in it.Liked This? Share It!