is easily one of, if not the best, films I've seen this year. It crushed me, and made me remember just why I love the movies. That's something easily forgotten when you have to see as many mediocre movies every year as I do.
Directed by Barry Jenkins, whose lovely San Francisco-set Medicine for Melancholy came out over seven years ago, and based on a short play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, it's a three-act story centered on the life of Chiron, and his coming of age in a tough Miami neighborhood.
In the first act, he's known as Little (Alex Hibbert), one of a couple of derogatory names the bigger and meaner kids around him have labeled him with. One afternoon, as he's hiding out from those rock-throwing kids, he's befriended by a man named Juan (Mahershala Ali), who treats him kindly and welcomes him into the home he shares with his girlfriend, Theresa (Janelle Monae). Juan becomes the father figure Little so desperately needs, teaching him that only he, Chiron, can decide who he wants to be, and not those who are tossing out names.
But Juan is a crack dealer, and Little's mother (Naomie Harris) is an addict. She's also one of his customers. Little's quiet realization that these two things are true is one of the film's more devastating scenes, both because it's inherently heartbreaking, but also because it reveals one of the film's biggest strengths, that of breaking apart what might appear to be some pretty rotten stereotypes, and reminding the audience that these black lives are human lives. Not all people who do bad things are bad people.
In the film's second act, Chiron has taken back his name, and is now a painfully quiet, skinny, and deeply lonely teenager. The taunts from his classmates have grown more pointed; "faggot" is thrown about with abandon. The kids have also become more violent. And his mother has fallen further into addiction.
Ashton Sanders's portrayal of the teen Chiron is astounding. Watching him made my heart ache. He's as tall and skinny as a beanpole, but walks around hunched over, as if subliminally trying to shield himself from the blows that could come at any moment. He can barely look anyone in the eye, and, like his younger self, always seems to be holding back his words.
He has one friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), the only kid who also had his back when he was younger. He possesses all the confidence Chiron lacks. One night they find themselves on the beach together, sharing a blunt and conversation that allows Chiron to finally express some of the pain that's been aching to come out. "I cry so much I could turn into drops," he confesses. The sexual encounter that follows is both unexpected and inevitable.
Two acts of violence end act two, and the Chiron of act three is the result of those acts. Trevante Rhodes plays the adult Chiron, who now goes by the name Black, a nickname that had been given to him by Kevin. But it's more than a nickname. "Black" is what much of the world may now see him as — that and only that —and that's a terrible truth with which to live.
Chiron's entire life is filled with so much pain and hardship that you can't help but feel an increasing sense of fear and tension that suddenly, things could go completely and tragically wrong. Imagine living with that fear every day of your life.
And while tense, the third act is also filled with the film's most beautiful and romantic moments. There's a scene in a diner, when a song is played on the jukebox, that has to be one of the most dizzingly romantic moments ever caught on film. It brought me to tears.
Barry Jenkins has made a movie that ranks up there with works by masters like Terrence Malick and Wong Kar-wai. It also brought to mind Richard Linklater's Boyhood, though Moonlight does it one better. It convinces us, through performance alone (because really, none of the actors looks all that much alike) that this is indeed the same Chiron, at every age.
I also loved how Jenkins's camera circles around characters, most memorably when a school bully clears through a crowd, and we are reluctantly drawn into a circle to witness a fight. His use of color to paint a mood is all the more impressive knowing the film was shot digitally. And the soundtrack, which includes classical, hip-hop, and classic R&B, is perfect.
But ultimately what most impressed me about Moonlight was how a movie so quiet, so subtle, and so understated, could slay me so hard.Moonlight