Film in review: “Moonlight”
Nathaniel Nelson / Winonan
In a time when Hollywood is moving further and further into sequel and remake territory, the independent market continually breaks new ground. Barry Jenkins’ modern masterpiece is one of these films. A beautiful 21st Century drama detailing the quintessential humanity inside the story of a gay black man, the kind of life rarely seen on the screen. A fusion of Jenkins’ upbringing and that of playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, “Moonlight” is an uncomfortably personal and wondrous visual poem, steeped in equal parts hope and melancholy.
Based on the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by McCraney, “Moonlight” is a three-act drama following a young black man, Chiron, through life and the discovery of his sexuality. The three-act structure, here complete with titles, does the film wonders. It lets Jenkins focus on specific moments in Chiron’s life: his struggles as a child, his tumultuous school years, the disillusionment of adulthood. In these three short vignettes, “Moonlight” tackles everything from sexual identity to school violence to drug culture. The narrative defies both summary and description, transcending the expectations of a small drama.
Chiron is played by three actors throughout the film, with Alex Hibbert, Aston Sanders and Trevante Rhodes taking on full duties for each of the three chapters. Hibbert, even as a young child nicknamed Little, breathes curiosity and identity into a role that barely needs it. His interactions with drug dealer Juan, played by Mahershala Ali in a career-defining performance, blend heart wrenching moments of realization with familial love from unexpected places. Reflected in young Chiron’s eyes are the same questions that go through our own: Who are we? What are we? What is my place in the world? What does it mean to be a man?
These questions of identity and manhood cross into the second act, where Aston Sanders takes over as adolescent Chiron. A scrawny, neatly-dressed teen in a Florida high school, Chiron is shown to had begun to accept his sexuality. Far from effervescent, Chiron is a conflicted and bullied child who slowly deals with his newfound identity through meetings with his closest friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). The dialogue continues to be profound, yet defiantly realistic. These are conversations between real people, not lengthy prose.
Finally, the film comes full circle in the final act, titled “iii. Black.” Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has grown, but in the process transformed. Now the spitting image of Juan, Chiron turned to the life he knew instead of one kept out of his reach. This final third of the film is a poignant depiction of dissociation with one’s identity. In a journey to meet Kevin, now an adult played by André Holland, Chiron confronts his identity head-on. But before “Moonlight” shows the outcome, the film ends starkly, mirroring its own beginning.
More than anything, “Moonlight” is a deeply humanistic piece of stark realism. This goes not only for the narrative, but the visuals. The film is beautifully shot and composed, but not in the same way as many other big name films. There are no vivid color schemes, manic set pieces or extensive long shots. Cinematographer James Laxton triumphs by disregarding normal conventions and instead focusing on revelatory simplicity. The three acts are given distinct feelings through subtle changes of color, framing or movement. However, Laxton simultaneously blends the acts together, creating a transitive tapestry of visual splendor.
To say “Moonlight” is a film about the life of a poor, gay, black man would be selling it short. To call it a film about today’s social issues would be just as shallow. “Moonlight” isn’t about any one thing, which is why it is such an absolute joy. Jenkins and company created the perfect film for modern audiences, attacking and commenting on many of the same issues we see on a daily basis. But it’s more than that. “Moonlight” is a film about humanity, suffering and love viewed through a unique lens, and there is no higher praise. 5/5
By Nathaniel Nelson