Movie Review: Moonlight.
A movie that is beautiful, clumsy, difficult, and deeply emotional, Moonlight is probably the best movie I’ve ever seen that left me wanting just a little bit more.
Hidden Figures. Lion. Kubo and the Two Strings. It seems this Oscar season has produced a score of movies that we didn’t really want to see… and immediately regretted not seeing sooner. Add Moonlight to this list. It is both spellbinding and exhausting in its intensity, a long hard look at the life of a young African American growing up in Miami.
Directed by Barry Jenkins and adapted from a semi-autobiographical play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is the story of Chiron (played by, in order of appearance: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), an African American boy derisively nicknamed “Little” due to his small stature. Chiron lives with his drug-addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris), whose neglect often forces Chiron to stay with a local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). His only friend growing up is Kevin (in order of appearance: Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome, and Jaden Piner), a Cuban American boy. Other than these sometimes safe ports, life’s hell for Chiron: ostracized, bullied and abused verbally and physically, young Chiron withdraws further and further within himself.
I need you to hear me…
Moonlight is a movie in three acts, each chronicling a time in Chiron’s life. In each, we see a person without a voice. Chiron is emblematic of just about every silenced minority in America: poor, the smallest child in class, an extremely dark skinned African American, and gay (it is important to note, however, that Chiron is never outed during the movie).
Every aspect of Chiron’s life is a potential danger, another weapon that others can use to keep him silent. It is the few that reach out to Chiron that provide safe spaces for him to come towards a slow definition of who he is, to find a voice. Juan may be a poor role model by conventional standards, but he provides a badly needed father figure. Teresa is both a surrogate mother and a sympathetic ear. Kevin urges “Little” to stick up for himself, and to allow himself to find areas in his life where he can shine. These refuges are brief and inadequate, but as this movie makes explicit, life is often like that.
I want you to feel this,
Every aspect of the film evokes emotion. The first act is quiet and clumsy, mirroring the shy child. It is starkly presented, with the colors of the characters skin purposely highlighted. In the second act, the tone is a super-saturated cyan accented with flashes of brilliance. The camera moves disorientatingly, indicative of this unsure, emotionally awkward teen. Finally, the third act is hard: shiny chrome, vulgar gold, and deep bass beats show us a man that has fortified his outer shell with menace and muscle to keep the world at arm’s length.
It should be clear as fear and plain as day.
The one constant in the cinematography Barry Jenkins uses is how raw and unvarnished everything feels. So much so, that at first I wasn’t quite sure if it was intentional or not. It turns out that the sometimes amateurish documentary inflections are intentional artifice. Jenkins used three different film stocks to achieve each act’s unique look. It was shot quickly, often unrehearsed, with each actor playing Chiron being kept away from each other so that their take on the character would be unique and free from influence. Everything adds up to a purposeful feeling of being a disembodied onlooker into this person’s lived-in experience.
It is an exceptional feat to make a scripted film appear like a documentary in a time when conventional documentaries are usually editorial pieces that are mostly polished testimony meant to sell a message. This movie evokes emotion, but never preaches; it just wants you to look.
All is said and done.
This is an important distinction: it’s a look at this man’s life, not a message or a polemic. It is that in-depth yet hands off approach that elevates a movie with so many troubling aspects at its core. This is no Spike Lee Jam: Moonlight is a poignant and challenging film that demands you look at it, but doesn’t force you to take a specific message home with you.
Each person might have their own entryway into this film, and Jenkins lets you approach it without expectation.We are given hints as to the time period, but it is never explicitly stated. Having been just about the same age at just about the same time period as Chiron, I implicitly picked up on some of the background issues that informed some of the plot. I knew of bullies that acted exactly like the ones that plagued young Chiron. I understood how effective the words hurled at Chiron could be. Even as a hetero male, I recognized the HIV/AIDS fear mongering and homosexual scapegoating that was prevalent at the time.
Others might resonate with different aspects. Color-ism plays into why Chiron is singled out by his African American peers. The effect that poverty has on social identity might grab others.
No matter what your entry point into the film is, it is a deeply moving, intensely personal look at one man. I was affected by this movie, but wanted a little more after the viewing. A few days after the viewing, I realized that was just my desire to have the movie craft a narrative that it had no desire or need to do.
Hidden Figures is still my favorite Oscar nominated movie this year, but I have to concede that of all the nominees I’ve watched, Moonlight is the best. The sheer craft of the film making and acting involved is superlative, and it deserves a view, if not an award. Leave all expectations behind though, and just let the moonlight wash over you.