Films can make the grandest of statements in the quietest of moments. That is the thesis, the beating heart, the delicate soul of Moonlight- an affecting portrait of the life of an impoverished gay black man named Chiron.
One friend of mine thought it sounded like Oscar bait. That’s an understandable assumption. It covers three of independent film’s favorite minority groups in one fell swoop: poor, homosexual, and African-American. But Moonlight is the farthest thing from Oscar bait. It’s ambitious in its introspection and honest in honoring its characters; a tenderly tragic vision that sometimes forgets to touch reality.
Moonlight wraps its cinematic fingers around the life of Chiron through three acts: his sexual awakening as a child, his troubled and bullied adolescence, and the midst of his adulthood. Given the small indie budget and the amount of care writer/director Barry Jenkins put into every other aspect of the film, I like to think that Jenkins himself did the casting — but if not, the casting director deserves an award. The three actors that portray Chiron are nothing short of phenomenal.
Alex Hibbert is Chiron as “Little”, nicknamed so for his inability to stand up to bullies and already evident effeminate nature. Hibbert turns in the best child performance of the year, reflecting the weight of a world that should not yet be on a young boy’s shoulders. He belongs to a drug addict mother that respects him as little as his childhood peers, and so he finds solace in the company of Juan (Mahershala Ali of Luke Cage) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe of the music world), doting parental figures who desperately want to help this little boy find solace and identity. Ali turns in a humbly multifaceted performance as Juan, shining brilliantly in a movie full of talented actors. If the Academy was kinder to indie films, he would certainly be nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Two qualities of Moonlight revealed in the first act remain at the forefront from then on: its haunting visual style and emotional distance. Barry Jenkins is a storyteller of the human soul and his visual flair drowns us in it. As Chiron struggles with his sexuality and self, Jenkins basks the world in blues and grays befitting of the film’s title. Anticipatory camera angles and close-ups steal our breath as they hesitantly reveal Moonlight’s intimate physical encounters and conversations. Jenkins’ direction brings us broken to the altar of human frailty, and we are compelled to worship in silence.
The screenplay’s refusal to easily label any person is itself sacred. The apparent dichotomy between Juan’s occupation and fatherly spirit shatters stereotypes as you get to know him. Chiron is unlike any gay black man you have ever met — because you have never met Chiron. Moonlight resolutely but gently reminds us that all humans are complicated messes of influences and experiences, and we should never be quick to ‘figure someone out’. That is how you authentically tell the story of anyone belonging to any minority group.
Moonlight’s use of emotional distance is initially powerful. The film floats ethereal above raw substance: gorgeously captured and paced like a dream, but intentionally avoiding (both in the plot and visually) the moments that would be most blatantly painful or passionate. During the childhood act, Jenkins exploits this distance by later crashing down into reality for a profound scene.
During Act 2 and 3 though, Moonlight prefers to keep drifting above and around poignant scenes without crash-landing into another massively moving moment. The third act comes close once, but for the most part, the film becomes more beautiful buildup without payoff. Jenkins may have been attempting subversion — and based on Moonlight’s critical acclaim, many believe he was successful — but I was left with incomplete feelings in need of closure. It’s not always artistic bravery to deny the audience obvious conclusions to character arcs. Moonlight is finest when Jenkins grants us a view of these climaxes.
Even so, performances keep emotions running hot. Trevante Rhodes as adult Chiron (“Black”) and André Holland as his friend Kevin are especially strong, delivering sensational performances while barely speaking. They bathe us in warmth when Moonlight sometimes leaves us cold.