Review: ‘MOONLIGHT’S’ Subtle Grace Speaks Volumes

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a film of unique grace and nuance.

At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be. And let nobody make that decision for you.

–Juan

Moonlight is an uncommonly graceful film, ebbing and flowing like Miami’s ocean tides, one of its reoccurring images. There’s nothing particularly new about director Barry Jenkins’ sophomore effort; you’ve heard this story before. It’s a coming-of-age tale about a young man growing up in the ghetto and discovering life, love, and himself along the way. But, I promise you, you’ve never really seen a film like Moonlight before.

So much of what makes Moonlight great is better off being experienced in a theater than read off of a computer screen. I could tell you what happens, but that would break the spell. Its themes of love, discovery, and belonging are universal, but it would be wrong to separate the film from what makes it so specific and personal. This is a black movie, a gay movie, a film about poverty played out in quiet moments. To change any of that would be to dramatically alter the film, but they aren’t a barrier. Moonlight never preaches. It just wants to experience and empathize.

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Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches Little (Alex Hibbert) how to swim

Jenkins’ film is a work of incredible nuance and specificity; its three parts play out like stanzas in a poem. “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black” each focus on different eras of a young boy’s progression into a man as he searches for family, love, and understanding, with each segment title reflecting his name and persona at that time. Each plays out over the course of a few days, no more than a week at most, with different actors portraying each era of his life, like if Boyhood had been shot over the course of a month instead of twelve years, but that comparison is not a slight. Alex Hibbert plays the quiet, cautious young boy, Ashton Sanders the questioning young man, and Trevante Rhodes the adult with a hardened exterior. The overall effect isn’t of a fragmented story, but rather of growth and change over time while so much of the world stays the same. Quite simply, it’s beautiful, emotionally stirring, and stunningly powerful.

I’m awed by the film’s economy of storytelling. Jenkins’ ability to set scenes and characterization without any exposition is a marvel. He writes and directs (adapting the film from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”) like an Ernest Hemingway story, conveying almost nothing through direct explanation. When the film begins with Juan, a skullcapped black man with a crown sitting on a dashboard, pulling up to an apartment project while playing Boris Gardener’s “Every Nigger is a Star” on the radio, it paints a picture in seconds. It’s the 1970s, he’s a proud, powerful black man, and this is probably a drug project. In the same way, when Little runs past with a gang of kids in pursuit, we know from the outset that he’s an outsider even in a community of other poor, marginalized African-Americans.

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Chiron, age 16 (Ashton Sanders)

Juan is indeed in the drug business, rising from the streets to manage his own network of low level dealers, and yes, the poor, fatherless Little comes to see him as a father figure. His clean, quiet house and his wife Teresa (Janelle Monae) represent refuge for Little, played with wide-eyed silence by Hibbert. Moonlight doesn’t run from clichés and well-trod archetypes. It embraces them, turning hard into preconceived stories and notions in order to destroy them, and Juan is a perfect example. The cast is uniformly excellent, but Mahershala Ali deserves special praise. The Luke Cage actor is magnetic here, exuding both power and tenderness in equal measure. I couldn’t take my eyes off of him while he was onscreen. The film doesn’t condescend to moralize about his profession, focusing instead on his humanity and relationship with Little. The scenes where he teaches Little to swim in the Atlantic Ocean are transformative, as is the symbol of the ocean throughout the film, always nearby during Little/Chiron/Black’s important life moments.

The film’s sense of place is palpable. The pastel colors and ocean winds are as ever-present as is Nicholas Britell’s luscious score. You can almost smell the salt in every scene. Those swirling sea breezes are matched by James Laxton’s often swirling photography, circling around characters in long, meditative takes. By the time Little has become the high school-aged Chiron (“shy-rone,” emphasis on the “shy”), Laxton favors soft-focus character shots representative of the ambiguity in Chiron’s relationships, especially with his mother (Naomie Harris, in a career-best performance) and his friend Kevin, as Chiron confronts harassment and his sexuality.

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Naomi Harris as Paula

Kevin, like the film’s protagonist, is played by three different actors, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland, and Moonlight is largely a story about their changing relationship. Holland in particular is fabulous, playing Kevin to Rhodes’s Black in the film’s final act. Again, Jenkins’s subtle screenplay is the star, trusting in the audience to understand what’s happening even as the story’s most important declarations go largely unsaid. Rhodes’s performance as Black is much different than those of his two predecessors, but he has the much more difficult part to play, showing Chiron grown into a hard-edged man, but allowing cracks and vulnerability to peek through when appropriate. The dinner conversation between he and Holland in Moonlight’s third act is an acting tour de force.

I saw Moonlight on a Friday night, and it captivated me for the next 24 hours, so much so that I returned for a second viewing the next night and discovered an entirely new layer of details that I’d missed the first times around. I’d eagerly sit through Moonlight a third time. The film’s sense of catharsis, if not resolution, is revelatory. Again, Jenkins’ skill helming this film can’t be praised enough as he calibrates the film to within an inch of perfection.

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Trevante Rhodes as Black

I find myself constantly waffling between which evocative performance is the best. I specifically mentioned Ali, but it could just as easily be Harris, Holland, or another. I’m awed by how Jenkins evokes such strong performances, especially from the film’s youngest, least experienced actors. Even as Moonlight has important things to say about homosexuality in the black community, he’s restrained enough to never turn his characters into overt symbols. They’re characters first and foremost. Most directors spend their lives trying to make a film with as many note-perfect moments as this one, and he’s succeeded in just his second try. The screenplay, acting, score, and cinematography are all top notch, combining to make a film that feels it could’ve only been made exactly when it was. Even a few minor tweaks would break the spell.

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Black and Kevin (Andre Holland) share a meal

I expect Moonlight to garner a lot of discussion around Oscar time considering last year’s #OscarsSoWhite debacle, but that’s patently unfair. Moonlight is an unquestionably black film, but framing it as this year’s token “black film” come awards season would be a grave injustice. This is great film, full stop, and it deserves recognition on those merits. Even as I fear placing too-high expectations upon it, I’ll tell you: this is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. See it at any cost.

Grade: A+

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