Very, very occasionally, a movie like Moonlight will come along, a movie which renders the practice of film criticism pretty much moot. How do you put into words the experience of watching something so sensory, an experience which almost seems to transcend language?
It’s a movie that is not overt in its brilliance, so after first viewing it’s natural to wonder why, exactly, it is so good. Why is it so affecting? There seems to be something going on beneath the surface, some method of delivery director Barry Jenkins is employing to elicit such a strong emotive response in his audience.
Moonlight is the story of Chiron, a young black man growing up in a rough neighbourhood of Miami whilst coming to terms with who he is, and who society expects him to be. The story is told in three parts, chronicling three stages of Chiron’s identity; as a child he is known as ‘Little’, adolescent simply ‘Chiron’, and finally ‘Black’ is the nickname given to him in adulthood. This is not a plot-heavy film and is minimal in its dialogue and action. Chiron is an introverted character, expressing much of the film’s sentiment through his facial expressions, and each of the three actors who play him share a quality of intense vulnerability that ties together their performances beautifully.
The casting is extraordinary across the board. Mahershala Ali plays Juan, a father-figure to Chiron earlier in his life, and is present in some of the film’s strongest scenes; the stunning ‘baptism’ in the ocean being one of them and also an achingly honest scene of confrontation at the dining table. Naomie Harris plays the role of Chiron’s drug-addicted mother, and is harrowing to watch as she shrieks and seethes through the film, bringing to the part an unhinged quality that is terrifying at times. And Kevin, Chiron’s companion from childhood on up, is portrayed by three different actors all sharing the character’s worldly sensibility, a knowingness in his smile as he regards Chiron; the only person who really sees him.
The movie’s Miami setting makes for some gorgeous cinematography and colour which seems to surround you as you are sucked into every frame. Jenkins seems to have fine-tuned every cinematic element to make watching Moonlight feel truly immersive, like a 3D movie without the 3D. It’s powerful in its simplicity; little things such as the ever-present sound of the waves breaking on the shore, the luminosity of the actors’ skin and the hazy, almost dreamlike texture of the camerawork as it shifts in and out of focus, all pull together to affect us on a profoundly deep level.
Jenkins also makes some bold decisions in his approach to storytelling, and this is impressive for a director with only one previous feature film in his oeuvre. It usually takes at least a handful of features before a filmmaker grasps the power of subtlety and minimalism as Jenkins has done here, and in this sense you can really feel the influence of East Asian cinema in his work.
The slow unfolding of Chiron’s journey of self-discovery happens so harmoniously that the third act creeps up on you as you are watching and delivers a breath-taking final scene. During my second viewing of the film I realised, during this scene, just why the film is so powerful. Chiron isn’t able to accept who he is because he has been raised to see masculinity in a certain way, and his perception of ‘what it means to be a man’ is warped by the environment he has grown up in. And this is where Moonlight’s strength lies; in its central theme, its comment on modern manhood, which is delivered to us in a beautiful and understated package. And perhaps it’s delivered to us like this in the hopes that we might subsequently re-evaluate our own perceptions of masculinity (in life and in film), which have quite possibly been warped by Hollywood’s mostly ‘traditional’ and often limited portrayals of gender (and race, and homosexuality) up until now. Once you realise what the film is actually trying to say, it’s like being punched in the gut. The best movies are the ones that force us, the audience, to look at something in a new way, bring light upon subjects that were otherwise dark or unexplored. These are the movies that shake us up and mould our world view.
I came out of the film feeling emotionally winded, but in a really excellent and exciting way. Jenkins’ style of filmmaking is so empathy-inducing that the film is almost painful to watch, which makes writing about it difficult; this is really a movie that needs to be experienced. It takes every element of the medium and celebrates it, but there is so much more going on beneath its luminous surface. It’s the kind of film that feels sorely needed right now, a breath of fresh air, inviting us in and baring its soul (and message) artfully and defiantly.
Review by Jade O’Halloran