It takes a courageous film to make pain it’s driving force, its gripping constant, but Barry Jenkins drenches you in the most devastating of emotions with his Oscar-nominated darling Moonlight. Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s 2003 play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’, a response to his mother’s death from AIDS, Jenkins’ quietly powerful, indeed quietly operatic picture, takes the central constructs of that play–one that wasn’t performed for almost a decade after it was written–and crafts them around the character of Chiron, otherwise known as both ‘Little’ and ‘Black’ in the three key stages of his life from boyhood to adulthood that Jenkins’ adapted screenplay takes on.
It’s a script which strips away, pares back, and shines light on a troubled soul in a manner many movies utterly fail to do, consumed as they are with structure and formula. Moonlight is anything but formulaic and as a consequence is more often than not poised, magnetic and heartbreakingly sad. It also leaves you with more questions than answers, both literally and metaphorically.
The nature of Jenkins’ stripped bare writing, pivoted around a character who people even discuss as being a man of few words, allows the emotion to pour through more via performance and how personal Jenkins makes his direction while still remembering he’s making a moving picture. All three stages are defined visually; as Little, his world is smaller, bright and white, filled with hope life may improve despite a drug-addled, selfish mother (played with chameleonic majesty by Naomie Harris) thanks to the guiding hand of a father he never had in Mahershala Ali’s soulful drug dealer Juan; as Chiron, the definition of an awkward high school teenager, the blue begins trickling in as the pressure cooker of experience swamps him; and finally as Black, a seemingly hardened version of Juan, his world is largely dark and lit by flickers of moonlight, as the boy who never had chance to define himself attempts to shine through. Jenkins splitting the picture into three defined sections subtitled by these names, all of which were given to him by extraneous forces, is a master stroke and equally it’s a testament to his steady hand that he manages to pull off a journey of over two decades with seamless grace.
Almost equal praise deserves to go to the three actors who portray Chiron as he comes of age. Alex Hibbert first as the diminutive Little, struggling to understand a world in which all he wants is a mother who loves him and a father like Juan to teach him how to swim, yet is faced with growing awareness he is ‘different’ from the other boys. Ashton Sanders as Chiron utterly manages to convey the pure, controlled frustration of being a teenager with homosexual urges in an environment where he is utterly chastised for anything less than straight up, macho tradition – while also dealing with a mother at her schizophrenic, drug-addled worst.
It’s perhaps Trevante Rhodes who has the trickiest role to play as Black, however, a Chiron who appears to have made his choices, become the shadow of the father figure he always wanted, with an edge of macho intimidation, yet one hiding the deeper desires and broken impulses he’s repressed to survive. Survival through experience and pain becomes the byword of the script and these three central performances and that’s perhaps Jenkins’ greatest triumph here; he manages to completely avoid, in the final act, anything close to traditional narrative. It’s pure character, pure emotion, pure catharsis in many respects – Chiron/Black/Little all combine as his journey both comes to an end and in many ways starts, with Jenkins steadfastly refusing to draw us a picture of where he goes next.
Beautifully shot, with some gorgeous cinematography, while simultaneously being a pared back, quiet and introspective character piece, Moonlight is one of the most emotive and poignant pictures released in quite some time. Barry Jenkins touches on all kinds of themes around sexuality, identity, place and time, and carries them off with sumptuous grace for a running time which oddly feels longer, and for once that’s not a criticism. His three stage, episodic story has a river of depth and elegance which sets it apart, certainly from many such stories set in the world of black culture.
Without preaching or clamping down a heavy hand, Moonlight manages to make you think, care and hope all at once. Not many movies nail all three and for that alone this deserves to be applauded for a long long time.
★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2
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