2016. Directed by Barry Jenkins
An urban lullaby, Barry Jenkins's second feature film is a turbulent emotional epic. Using subtlety and overwhelming restraint, Moonlight tells an all too familiar story of an urban youth struggling to find himself in a manner that is not only realistic and respectful to the culture, but also overcomes any sense of conformity by dismantling the very essence of what it means to be human.
Told in three acts, with each focusing on a pivotal moment in the main character's life, Moonlight uses the sun washed streets of Miami as a backdrop for it's bluesy examination of heartbreak and the unquenchable thirst for acceptance. Chiron comes of age on the tough streets of a ghetto in south Florida, tortured by his peers for his quietly delicate mannerisms. His mother slowly loses her battle with addiction and Chiron finds a surrogate father in Juan, a drug dealer who teaches him the importance of self. During high school, Chiron has a sexual encounter with one of his best friends and in the aftermath is involved in an assault that sends him out of state. In the final act, Chiron has become a drug dealer like Juan, and yet still craves for a connection like the one from his youth. A fateful phone call brings Chiron home where he comes full circle with his past, confronting his ghosts with a soft spoken sense of courage and hope.
The strength of this phenomenal directorial effort is in its fragility. Chiron's odyssey is a quiet broken mirror, reflecting his pain and ostracism by contrasting them with a world of characters who have each accepted their fates. Mahershala Ali's Oscar worthy supporting role as Juan brims with a cool complacency, a street king who not only understands the game, but fundamentally surrenders to its inevitability. He teaches Chiron not only to be self aware, but urges him to make peace with the beauty that surrounds him while also deciding for himself who he is going to be. The father son relationship is highlighted through some wonderful shots in the first act by James Laxton. Chiron's hand floats out of car window, reminding the viewer that this is a child forced into the cruel realities of adulthood. Juan and Chiron's scene at the beach is a blissful tangent that harmonizes the concepts of self reliance and spiritual rebirth with a dazzling pallet of blues and crystallized light. The unforgettable denouement of the first act is unforgiving and candidly raw, setting the tone for Chiron's tribulations to come.
Naomie Harris stars as Chiron's mother, whose transition from caretaker to fiend is abrupt and tragically realistic. She runs the gambit of maternal desolation with ease, floating from frustrated concern to violent disgust in an instant, communicating a furnace of self loathing with a handful of lines, the most important of which is muted by Nicholas Birtell's score. Every part of his musical design is applied with a beautiful mix of uncertainty and longing, using a classical arsenal to wage Chiron's personal war to find a place in world that doesn't seem to want him. Ashton Sanders as teen Chiron and Jhareel Jerome as teen Kevin have the film's best scene, a sexual encounter that is handled with such grace and attention that the entirety of what is happening isn't felt until long after. This is where Jenkins's script comes to life, using the two actors to communicate a budding understanding of pain and alienation.
Trevante Rhodes arrives in the final act as an adult Chiron. This young actor's ability to harness the unstable torment in Chiron's heart with virtually no lines is not only an outstanding byproduct of a formidable talent, but a matter of fact capstone on a film that is already momentous. He portrays a man who is, in essence, still a teenager on a beach searching for the love of his life. Every shy look, hesitant breath, and wanting stare is infallible, a perfect summation to the life the viewer has seen unfold. Laxton used different film stock for each act, with the final being the most vibrant. There is one scene in particular that uses a deep shot to show the beach from Chiron's point of view that is heart stopping, dovetailing the rejuvenating colors with Chiron's anxiety. As Chiron reconnects with Kevin, the mood is cautious, and yet undeniably hopeful. Andre Holland's Kevin is the the missing piece in Chiron's shattered heart, a warm and self aware shard that contrast's Chiron's eternal bereavement.
Moonlight is being touted as one of the best queer films ever made. While this is certainly true, the magic of Jenkins's unforgettable story is that is defiantly human. It highlights an already uncomfortable and foreign demographic and then adds the homosexual element as a means to remind the viewer that we are all in the same struggle. No matter your race, economic status, religion, or sexual preference, every human has often found themselves in the darkness overcome by grief and uncertainty. It is the power of love that is the Moonlight, the one universal constant that can repair even the most broken of things. Chiron and his soulful journey is the face of that truth.
In theaters now, if you see only one film this year, Moonlight needs to be that movie. This is a deep film that is not only thoughtfully engaging, but it also makes it remarkably easy to do so. In a time where fear of ideological opposites dominates our electronic intake, Moonlight shines through the adversity with a message on the importance of compassion and the ameliorating powers of unconditional love.
Highly. Highly Recommend.