Film Review: 'Moonlight'
If there's a recent movie that truly captured that documentary-like feel - as if someone pressed record and let God do the directing - it was 2014's Boyhood, where director Richard Linklater shot the same actors across twelve years for an unparalleled sense of continuity. While it set an industry standard for portraying consistency and realism, in retrospect it doesn't seem to have left the lasting impression that great movies are known for. It was sort of a come-and-go, a flash-in-the-pan success story.
Two years later, Barry Jenkins ' Moonlight has shown itself as an even more worthy contender for the documentary-like film title, and it leaves not just impressions, but scars.
This emotionally resonant tour-de-force is a special kind of work that takes an examined, intimate look at the life of a Miami inner-city youth in Chiron (played by three different actors throughout the film) in distinct stages of his life. Played by a different actor in each chapter, Moonlight does may not go the lengths Boyhood does by casting the same actor, yet the result feels so much more authentic. Jenkins has delicately casted each of his three Chrion's to show the quiet reserve, the wealth of emotions that lie just underneath a rugged exterior, almost perfectly every time. They might not all look the same, but the emotional consistency is impeccable; in our hearts, this is true-to-life.
In the opening act, the nine year-old, baby-faced Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert here), is relentlessly harassed by other kids as they hurl vicious slurs his way and chase him around a drug-infested neighborhood. His home is no solace from the cruel outside, as his drug-addicted mother Paula (an excellent Naomie Harris) provides the cold opposite of motherly love.
Things would seem to be stereotypical here. But when we enter Juan (House of Cards' Mahershala Ali), the neighborhood drug dealer who finds a scared Chiron huddled in an abandoned home, what we think we know about these parts of the city are all but shattered. He's brought home to his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), who provides a clean home, hot meals, and peace into the boy's life. Ali, who gives a who brings a heavy dose of humanity and lovingness to Juan, is our gateway into realizing that Moonlight is here to show us the previously unseen, to have us level with Chiron as we ready to grow alongside him. And it's epitomized when Juan teaches Chiron to swim in a sublime scene that's easily one of the season's best.
Which brings us to our second act: Chiron as a high school teenager (now Ashton Sanders), so skinny he could snap in two, and how the bullies around town definitely try to do so. It's where Chiron begins to tread the path of self-discovery and set in motion his coming-of-age tale as we see the butterfly effect slowly take effect from the events of his childhood. Most movingly is a blossoming relationship with his best and seemingly only friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) as they begin to explore their feelings for themselves and for one another.
If you want to talk about shattering stereotypes, this is the best movie to do it. Jenkins makes it clear he has the eye for writing great moments and letting his actors do the work. The camera, voyeuristic but not intruding, watches with an unjudgmental air. His lens does not just observe, but it understands. And so do we as a gently moving score plays behind Chiron's life, the subtle but prominent undercurrent of emotion moving throughout the film. Jenkins creates the best possible conditions for jumping right into Chiron's shoes and growing up with him. And for that, the big life moments he encounters in each chapter of his life hit us that much harder.
While Moonlight is undoubtedly a coming-of-age film (although definitely not your typical one), it isn't until the film's third and final act - which shows Chiron (now Trevante Rhodes) as a bulked-up and almost fully-grown man - when we see that his arc is not fully complete. Instead, it's the sum of what we've already seen in the previous two acts, showing through in an adult that is every bit as complex and nuanced as you'd imagine him to be. And it's in here when Moonlight has its most emotionally gratifying moments.
The gradual, though prolific, transformation Chiron makes tugs at the soul, feeling so authentic that we leave the theater thinking we've grown up alongside a brother. And while that feeling is certainly familiar, what is not is the fact that we've seen all this happen in the run-down parts of town, to a black character, to a gay character, and to one whose transformations are not so overt, but quietly subtle. In that sense, Moonlight is not only a great movie -- it's an important one.
Rated R. 111 minutes.
Written by Barry Jenkins (screenplay) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (story by).
Directed by Barry Jenkins.
Starring Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, and Duan Sanderson.