Directed by Barry Jenkins
It’s not often you get to see a “first” in the cinema. The adage that “there’s nothing new under the sun” is, perhaps more prevalent in cinema than in any other medium. And, yet, along comes “Moonlight” – the first film I can think of that accurately portrays institutionalized homophobia deeply rooted in the uber-machismo and insular world of the urban African-American coming-of-age experience. That’s a mouthful, I know, but it’s the specificity of time and place that allows the longing, hurt, loneliness, and symptoms of PTSD to successfully come through.
Second-time(!) feature writer & director, Barry Jenkins, has crafted the smallest and quietest of films that lands with the force of a Tyson uppercut. Our protagonist says almost nothing throughout with his words, yet you FEEL for this boy/teen/man. By utilizing three different stages of life, Jenkins, in effect, gives us a trilogy – three small films unto themselves – to paint the whole. This should not be a surprise given that, up to now, Jenkins has been a successful creator of short films. But don’t be dissuaded…”Moonlight” is more effective and informative in its less than two hours than the entire marathon that was “Boyhood”. This is due to Jenkins brilliant economy of words. His camera is not afraid of quiet…of lingering…of understanding that it’s the moments after an initial feeling that make us human…not the cause of those emotions. Further, to understand and SEE the effect of hate against that which we cannot control (color of our skin, sexual orientation, gender identification, etc…), we need to stop movement and plot…and force the audience member to experience the growing pain and welling frustration that comes in the immediate aftermath.
And, man, has he chosen some faces for us to focus on. Chiron’s three incarnations, the pre-teen, “Little” (Alex Hibbert), the adolescent, “Chiron” (Ashton Sanders) and the young adult. “Black” (Trevante Rhodes) could not have been better cast. Each of the three actors expertly portraying their character’s respective confusion, frustration and quiet acceptance that surround who they are and where they are – all without ever proselytizing or demanding we take notice of the “injustice”.
And thanks to the supporting cast, no histrionics are necessary. Mahershala Ali (who, it seems, is literally in every single piece of media made in 2016), is better here than in anything else he has done. And while I’m still not sold on him as being a ‘great’ actor, his final scene in this film puts him in the conversation. Naomie Harris and Janelle Monae, who play Chiron’s mother of origin and mother of choice, respectively, successfully model what support is and what it is most certainly not. Monae is the more successful of the two, as Harris is asked to play a little too close to caricature. But she acquits herself well in a couple tough early scenes which allows her to blast in to a beautiful third act scene. But the incarnations of Kevin, whose role I won’t describe for fear of giving too much away, are what create all the inner, and unspoken tension. Jaden Piner and Jharrel Jerome are terrific as the younger Kevins, but the performance of the film for me, belongs solely to Andre Holland. His world weariness, acceptance, and connection are absolute works of acting art. And while Ali and Harris are getting the awards buzz, Holland owns the most perfect fifteen minutes of screen time.
Nicholas Britell’s score, consisting almost entirely of piano and solo violin, is exquisite, and accentuates the quiet and lonely sadness that permeates the film. In fact, sifting through it again, just now, I was reminded of Jenkin’s color palette – almost a companion to the music – quiet, yet saturated, blues and yellows of Chiron’s inescapable daily cage, in opposition to the dark navy of the beach at night – the symbol of Chiron’s freedom to be who he is. It’s a gorgeous score, deserving of play outside the context of the film.
“Moonlight” is a film that lasts. Its effect on me has grown stronger since I watched it, and considering that I was sobbing upon its completion, that is saying something. It is not to be missed film-making and and not to be missed acting…and, especially in the times we’re both in and heading towards, not to be missed emotions. A gem.
Written on 1/5/17