Most of the time, films exist quite openly as simply a form of entertainment. We go along to the cinema, or download them onto TVs and other gadgetry, we sit down for a couple of hours, and go swimming in Imagination Land (albeit with the exception of documentaries. Even the truest of biopics about real-life figures and happenings rarely escapes that fundamentally ‘theatrical’ DNA. Actors have their big moments. Music swells. Symbolism abounds, with subtlety or otherwise. Act One, Act Two, Act Three, then show’s over. This isn’t criticism. Most films know exactly what they are, or at least what they’re trying to be: someone’s idea of a good story that others will enjoy and/or appreciate. Describing Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight as ‘entertainment’ is a disservice. The film is nothing less than a portal, a transporting experience, and an unfiltered exploration into the life of a young, black, gay man coming of age.
‘Little’. ‘Chiron’. ‘Black’ (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, respectively). Over the course of his troubled upbringing in the ghettos of Miami, Florida, Chiron goes by each of these in his search for an identity he can understand. With his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) a drug addict, a young Chiron finds guidance in Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe), but the older he gets the more he realizes the terrible truth that knowing who you are isn’t something that can be told to you. It’s something you must discover for yourself.
Moonlight is truly, unequivocally, a special film. No matter if the story had been autobiographical or a complete work of fiction (Jenkins adapts the film from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s 2003 semi-autobiographical stage-play ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’), watching Moonlight isn’t so much like looking through a microscope into Chiron’s life as it is entering that microscope. Jenkins takes what could easily have been another in a long line of ‘culture studies’ of African American livelihoods in modern America, and instead delivers a soulful, sincere, immensely affecting snapshot of a life both far too real and far too nuanced for the silver screen to fully satisfy. We never completely know the person that is Chiron, because the questions of identity the film deals with are fundamentally too pervasive and profound to answer in general, let alone in two hours.
What makes the film remarkable is how deeply we do come to understand him with how little we are given. Performances across the board fill even the simplest of glances and facial expressions with all the emotional weight and volume of grand monologues. Mahershala Ali and Naomi Watts steal their every scene, each a supremely powerful and vivid example of the vicious cycle of circumstance that is their livelihoods, and scenes of their collision electrify the film like a fireworks display. Musically, the film plays out mostly in silence, allowing only the most electrically charged of moments a few emotional chords. Minimalism is the name of the game here, and all of it takes the emotionality to maximum. Nothing is superfluous, nothing feels contrived, everything has a purpose and something to say.
Watching Moonlight isn’t really like watching a film at all. It’s the experience of floating invisibly around the life and times of a vulnerable soul, as if you’re in the company of Dickens’ three spirits. It’s a film that fundamentally redefines romantic drama on the silver screen, a profound expression of the importance of self-acceptance and how deeply it contributes to the ability to love, and a much-needed spotlight on communities all too often overlooked by mass media storytelling.
Final Score: 5/5