by Haley GoetzIn the scope of cinematic history, there are only a few films that truly transcend time. Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is one of those films. Telling the story of one man’s life in Miami, the plot follows along three distinctive points in his life. Coming at a time of great tension in the American social landscape, there is no doubt that Moonlight is arriving at just about the perfect moment. There hasn’t been a film this prominent that explores an oftentimes overlooked demographic (queer African-American men), and any future films will have a difficult time surpassing what has been accomplished by Moonlight.
Chiron, the film’s protagonist, is played with equal self-assurance by three different actors of varying ages. In the first part of the film entitled “Little,” the audience learns about the place Chiron (played first by Alex Hibbert) grows up in. Little is Chiron’s nickname as a child, and in this section, he is confused by his identity and finds himself being without a place in his rough neighborhood. The audience learns about Little’s environment: his mother, Paula (ferociously brought to life by Naomie Harris), is an emotionally abusive crack addict; Little and his friend Kevin (Jaden Piner) display an affection that is different from Little’s interactions with other boys; and Little’s befriending of Juan (Mahershala Ali) lends him a new kind of familial structure.
In the second half of the film (titled “Chiron”), Chiron (this time played by Ashton Sanders) is having a hard time at his high school. Still occasionally living with Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), Chiron doesn’t have any friends aside from Kevin (played by Ithaca College’s own Jharrel Jerome). When a burgeoning romance develops between the two boys on a beach late one night, Chiron feels an inexplicable change. By the third act of the film (titled “Black”), Chiron is now called Black and he’s played by Trevante Rhodes. Now living in Atlanta, Black decides to go back to his native city not only to visit his ailing mother but also to see Kevin (André Holland), who is working at a diner. They reconnect and the transcendent journey of Moonlight comes full-circle.
One of many elements that makes Moonlight succeed is the consistently high-quality acting. The child actors who play Little and Kevin display a compelling sense of confidence. During multiple moments throughout the first act, Little completely steals scenes from his adult counterparts. Harris gives a gritty portrayal of addiction and the consequences it can have at home, while Ali skillfully plays an understanding and compassionate man who is a drug dealer by circumstance. Ali’s character goes through a reversal when he begins to act as a father figure to Little, teaching him how to swim in one touching scene.
In the second act, Chiron has grown up, but he is aggravated by the boys who continually berate him during and after school. Sanders plays a quiet but commanding Chiron. When he talks to Kevin, it’s easy to see that Chiron feels a certain way for him. Jerome is an interesting (and equally conflicted) Kevin. After their secret tryst at the beach, Kevin and Chiron act with the same false machismo that they’ve had to live with their whole lives. This sense of hyper-masculine culture only permeates further into Chiron’s being as he becomes a hardened dealer in the third act of the film.
Rhodes is wonderful as Black — most of his emotions coming out in piercingly intense stares. Of equal importance is Holland as the older Kevin. The two have quite a few repressed feelings toward each other, and when they finally meet again, they are barely even able to speak because of how cloudy everything has become between them.Moonlight is only Jenkins’s second feature. His first, 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, was a festival darling, but not to the degree of Moonlight. Based on a play by Miami-based Tarell Alvin McCraney entitled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight condenses the story to feel as intimate as possible (as a play would), while also keeping it raw (in the vein of great independent films). The script for the film was penned by both Jenkins and McCraney, and its emotional qualities shine throughout. The characters are as fleshed out as they can be, as is their surroundings.
The cinematography of the film is wildly impressive. Shot by James Laxton, every frame has meaning and depth attached to it. There are a multitude of violent colors spaced throughout, especially in the first act. The resolution is also impeccably sharp, and in the sequence where Juan teaches Little how to swim, the clouds glisten with the hint of an impending storm. Along with this, another aspect of note is Nicholas Britell’s score. There is a common symphonic refrain that works itself into the film at various pivotal moments, and this ultimately works to showcase the commonalities between each act of the film.
Masculinity is a tough topic to bring to light on film. This is because it’s a tough subject even to breach in casual conversation. Masculinity remains something that is programmed into boys from a young age, but it is also not too apparent. While femininity is more visible (with makeup and fashion), masculinity isn’t always so clear-cut. In Moonlight, masculinity is portrayed in an emotional and highly realistic way. It’s tender, it’s messy and it’s human. Men are people, after all, and they should be just as openly expressive as their counterparts. Moonlight is also a turning point for a different reason, and that is what it represents for the future of independent cinema. Since it is taking not just the festival circuit by storm, but also the mainstream media, Moonlight is having a wide impact. It is my hope that by having a film like this receive so much recognition and support, it will only ignite other works of independent cinema to have the same kind of reach.
Moonlight is a landmark achievement in filmmaking. It’s beautifully shot, emotionally powerful and contains world-class acting. If you haven’t yet seen Moonlight, go see it before it leaves theaters.
5 out of 5 stars