Jake Richardson | 10/01/2017
"Shit, I cry so much sometimes I feel like I'm just gonna turn into drops"
Barry Jenkin’s debut feature is a touching, timeless and transformative piece about self-discovery and the struggle to find ones’ place in the world.
Moonlight is presented as a triptych that follows childhood, middle school and adulthood for Chiron (alternately known as Little and Black throughout the film). We join him as a young kid (Alex R. Hibbert), bullied by his schoolmates who think he is gay. Even his mother (Naomie Harris) screams homophobic slurs at him. He takes comfort in his relationship with drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his partner Teresa (Janelle Monae). While they might earn their money in criminal ways, they have huge hearts and help young Chiron feel loved and included in such a troubled period of his life.
In middle school, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is brutally bullied by his fellow classmates who are all convinced he is gay. His mother gets progressively more addicted to drugs, and the deceased Juan leaves a visible hole in his life. Teresa is still there for him, but events at school push his life to breaking point even while he has his first homosexual experience.
As a grown man, Black (Trevante Rhodes) is a trapper; running a drug ring in Atlanta. He gets a call from a childhood friend, and is forced to finally confront his need for identity.
Moonlight is unmistakably beautiful, with DOP James Laxton using intriguing focus-pulling techniques and interspersing still shots with vibrant, long-take tracking shots to bring a sense of life to the film. The opening twirling shot around Mahershala Ali is stunning; providing a sense of danger and frenetic energy to an otherwise stagnant scene. The use of neon lights and symmetry is also inspired, with the straight lines and symmetry of shots perfectly juxtaposed against the story of Chiron.
Barry Jenkins brings together three brief windows of life and joins them with this thread of identity that is so powerful throughout the film. His dialogue is biting and witty, and feels organic in its environment. He infuses a threatening undercurrent into every scene, except for in Juan and Teresa’s house where you can feel the love and acceptance pulsing off the screen.
The three actors playing Chiron are all solid, as is Naoime Harris, but Mahershala Ali outshines them all. Ali is absolutely outstanding as the drug dealer with a heart of gold. His pursed lips, tongue flick and lion-like chuckle are all amazing pieces of characterization, leading up to a moment of ashamed admission that is truly one of the greatest pieces of acting of the year.
Tense, heartbreaking and achingly beautiful, Moonlight is a perfect, character driven look at an issue that is universal.
With strong lead performances and an amazing supporting performance from Mahershala Ali, complimented by frenetic and inventive cinematography and courageous direction, Barry Jenkins’ debut piece is a shining example of quality filmmaking.