For audiences to react with Moonlight in the way that they have is extraordinary. The film is fresh on everyone’s lips, especially after the seemingly controversial (hmm.) win over La La Land at the Academy Awards. But that is all washed away when you first encounter Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight because everything is just so genuine.
Moonlight is reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s 19-year film Boyhood thematically as we watch a young boy grow up before our very eyes, but this time three different actors take on the role of Chiron. They traverse through three different stages as Chiron grows up in the Liberty City projects of Miami, Florida.
A project such as this may cause hiccups for the characters in terms of narrative and arcs, but Jenkins displays a masterful touch when it comes to this as he directs every single member in the large ensemble piece with a direct precision that is enigmatic and visible on the screen. Across the board the performances are genuine and enchanting as Chiron is supported by jaw-dropping performances from Mahersala Ali, Jeanelle Monae and Naomie Harris.
Moonlight very heavily bares its beating heart to the audience through to use of Chiron and the three actors that portray him at different stages from the young Alex Hibbert being chased by bullies to the hard exterior of Travente Rhodes in the third act. But whilst Moonlight invests in this character, there is a certain cinematic quality to this film, something that is not often visible in films that focuses heavily on it’s characters.
The warmth that emanates from the screen in the swirling opening shot of Juan (Mahersala Ali) is magnificent, almost placing you in the projects of Liberty City with Juan. Jenkins does not have it stop there though, as you can almost feel the brief gust of wind that the teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) talk about on the beach as the waves lap in the background.
This is all intertwined with a beautifully placed score, but also the apt popular culture songs relevant to that of the time period. And it works, especially as Chiron in the third act mimics Juan, with the flashy car and in terms of profession, even so far as to mimic the nickname that represents a colour.
But this sense of identity that Chiron is trying to find throughout the three acts is crucial to the story working as one becomes invested in the characters throughout their own parts of the story. The struggle that is visible on screen as he tries to find his own voice and identity whilst growing up in a difficult area. This is all whilst trying to maintain a relationshipwith his drug-addicted mother. (played to perfection by Naomie Harris)
There are areas in Moonlight where the story was heartwrenching, as Little (Young Chiron played by Alex Hibbert) asks about being a ‘faggot’ as he wrestles with this internal battle. But the scene is weighted perfectly as Juan shows a shame in his profession, but the justified voice of not letting anyone tell you who you are or can be. Juan’s presence is significant throughout the three acts of Chiron’s story and as I mentioned, he even goes as far as mimicking the only father figure he had. But aside from having pretty much everything on the nose, the heart-breaking story was not there, like many professed it had.
That would have to be my only grief with Moonlight, I feel as though there may have been too much hype going into the film, which majority of it was justified. Just not the heart-breaking element. Everything else was incredible, including the very personal touches that Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney worked into the story and the incredibly strong and versatile characters that are seen throughout Moonlight. And of course, the cinematic experience that Jenkins managed to shoot the film in was just beautiful, especially as we are experiencing a journey through this person’s life. Moonlight was an absolutely joy to watch, but my advice would be to stay away from the hype – if you can!