I’m not exactly sure where to start with a review of Moonlight, because it is a film that is so delicate and personal – a film that has stayed with me since the moment I first saw it. Simply put – Barry Jenkins has created a beautifully moving miracle of a film.
At the Toronto International Film Festival this past September (2016), hundreds of people, myself included, waited in the standby (Rush) line, waiting to see if there would be any unused or unoccupied seats to be filled. There were none. The draw and conversation surrounding Moonlight was fervent and monumental.
Moonlight is a story told in three parts, a triptych examining the life of one young man, Chiron – poor, black and gay. It is a piece of filmmaking that is so vital and relevant – a refreshing portrait of lives that are so rarely depicted on film or our popular culture at large.
“Who is you?”
This question weaves throughout Moonlight – exploring the isolation that identify can place on an individual. The film explores Chiron’s identity in three phases of his young life: Little (Alex R. Hibbert), Chrion (Ashton Sanders) and Black (Trevante Rhodes). In many ways, Chiron’s identity is shaped by his circumstances. In the first act of the film, Little becomes aware of himself and his place in the world – stumbling, curious and innocent. In the second act, teenaged Chiron is filled with rage and desperate longing – bound by his circumstances. In the third act, Chiron calls himself Black – his identity reflecting how the world views him – carrying wounds from a life shaped by hard circumstance.
These three gifted actors embodied the role of Chiron in the most cohesive and effective portrayal of one character by multiple actors. If the Best Actor Oscar could be shared, then Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes would be a shoo-in for their absorbing three-in-one portrayal of Chiron. Small things like the tenor of voice, shy glances and contemplative stare are shared by all three actors in a way that feels so natural. Each act blossoms to reveal defining moments of Chiron’s life – seeking to answer the question: “Who is you?”
Chiron’s life is shaped in no small part by the people in his life. Naomie Harris as Chiron’s drug addicted mother Paula, is raw and fierce. Paula’s treatment of Chiron is often appalling, her love for him still shines through and you feel all the pain of her struggle. Mahershala Ali appears as Juan, a mid-ranking drug dealer who finds young Little hiding from bullies on a dilapidated housing estate and fills the gaping hole of a paternal figure. Mahershala Ali’s performance is superb – a gentle haven of understanding and acceptance. Juan’s presence is and importance is echoed throughout the rest of Chiron’s life. He is missed when he isn’t on screen.
The third and most important person in Chiron’s life is his friend Kevin. The three pairs of Chirons and Kevins – Alex R. Hibbert and Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome, and Trevante Rhodes and André Holland (who is mesmerizing) – couldn’t imaginably be more perfect, or perfectly matched. From the first glimpses of friendship to an unrequited and unwavering love – the emotional tension of the relationship is searing and thrilling.
The cinematography of this film is perfect. There are moments where you just want to stare at how gorgeous the composition is. Director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton give Moonlight a visual quality that suffuses every scene with an awe-inspiring glow. Each frame is beautiful and gritty, gleaming with luxuriously saturated colours, punctuated by Nicholas Britell’s haunting score.
Moonlight is so achingly real and vulnerable. Sometimes, the film feels so intimate that the audience is an intruder. The beauty of Moonlight is that it makes everything not only feel keenly relevant, but also somehow beautiful. It challenges conventional portrayals of masculinity, love and race. Moonlight is poetry on film. Give us more stories and films like these.
“So, please. Go see ‘Moonlight.’ Because the film is simply fantastic. And because, when you’re done, it feels really good to reach out to others and say to them ‘I really want you to see ‘Moonlight.’” – Mark Duplass