“Who is you” is the repeated refrain of Moonlight, the story of Miami-born Chiron told in three chapters corresponding to three ages (grade school, high school, and mid-20s). The answer is complicated. Chiron is shy. Chiron is black. Chiron is poor. Chiron is the son of an neglectful mother and absent father. Chiron is the target of bullies. Chiron is coming to grips with his homosexuality. Chiron seems to be a laundry list of melodrama and angst, but it’s to Moonlight’s great credit that it never loses sight of the fact that Chiron is Chiron. Moonlight is, more than anything else, a emotionally resonant and empathetic character study. The fact that is has beautiful cinematography, a tremendous score and soundtrack, and shines a light on a traditionally ignored segment of the population is all gravy.
Each chapter is titled for a moniker of the main character (Little, Chiron, and Black, respectively), and grapples with his self-identity. The three chapters can be roughly broken down into three epiphanies: understanding your world, understanding your self, and understanding how to accept and be honest about your self. Every side character is written solely in terms of their relation to Chiron (I can only think of one scene without the main character), including a drug dealer who becomes his de facto father figure and his friend Kevin, who greatly influences his fortitude and his sexuality. Despite Chiron being a person of few words, director Barry Jenkins’ camera and the performances of the three actors playing Chiron give us a complete, intimate picture, transcending the shallow stereotypes that appear on the surface, particularly in its third act. It seems ready to jump into yelling, violence, and melodrama at any point, but opts for restraint in nearly every case while still providing pathos and catharsis.
What pushes Moonlight from effective to extraordinary is its beautiful production. Jenkins’ frames are all a piece of art unto themselves, popping with slightly over-saturated colours (the full title of the original play is In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and you better believe they get that shot). There’s a lot to dissect in each image, and they paint a vibrant and distinctive world in spite of the often depressing material. The soundtrack is loaded with the kind of old soul and R&B that Kanye West made a career out of sampling, contrasting with the strings of the stunning original score. And the performances are fantastic from top to bottom, with Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali deserved locks for supporting Oscar nominations.
Moonlight is an utterly absorbing and beautiful film with unflailing empathy for its main character. It avoids the numerous awards-bait pitfalls, standing a singular and triumphant work. As a piece of visual art, Moonlight is worthy of study. As a gripping drama, Moonlight is entirely effective. As a time capsule of an era where identity has taken centre stage, Moonlight is maybe the most important and relevant film of the year.
Dir. Barry Jenkins
Starring Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Mahershala Ali, and Naomie Harris
Rotten Tomatoes (98%)
- Obligatory burn: Moonlight is the movie Boyhood would have been if Richard Linklater was a more interesting human being.