Asher Breuer-Weil on why Moonlight is one of this year's most important films.
To describe Moonlight in any singular way would be to do it an injustice; it’s far more complex than that. Barry Jenkins’ 2nd feature film is a not only a story of a homosexual growing up in a rough African-American community, but also of a dysfunctional family torn apart by drug abuse, of the complexities of identity, of love, hate, redemption, success and happiness. In other words, it captures life – its scope is limitless.
Across three distinct chapters, the film traverses the upbringing of Chiron, played by three different actors at each stage, from childhood (Alex R. Hibbert) to adolescence (Ashton Sanders) to manhood (Trevante Rhodes). We see him go from his schooling days in poverty-stricken Miami through to later life as a wealthy, Chevy-driving drug dealer. It’s a story told by Jenkins with deep sincerity; never afraid to tackle the harsher elements of life, nor shying away from its poetry and beauty. We are made witness to remorseless beatings, torrents of abuse, and heart-rending abandonment, all basked in the cold light of James Laxton’s excellent camerawork. Yet this harshness is finely balanced with moments of intense tenderness: moments where Chiron is taught to swim by Juan (Mahershala Ali), his surrogate father-figure, or even Chiron's first sexual encounter, shot gorgeously by the sea in the moonlight.
Moonlight ability to subtly alter from one extreme to the other is one of the film’s most striking elements, and great credit must go to Laxton for this. He creates numerous binaries, presenting Chiron at times as an animal: sweat and blood dripping off his face as he glares at himself in the mirror, and at times as a wise and perceptive child: sitting in the bath with shampoo over his head giving him what looks like a full head of grey hair. As an adaption of a play – Tarell McCraney’s ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ (McCraney and Jenkins coincidentally grew up a few blocks away from one another and attended the very same school) – it makes sense for the film to contain these kinds of dualities. The intimacy that theatre possesses is allowed to shine. The close character interactions feel so personal, the actors seeming more akin to three-dimensional humans performing live in front of you as opposed to two-dimensional caricatures on the silver screen.
This functions so effectively due to the quality of the acting. Each portrayal of Chiron is highly believable, a feat made all the more remarkable considering how Jenkins made sure that the three actors never met nor observed each other’s work. The longing glances, awkwardness, discomfort; each actor captured these in a manner similar to his other. The third and final portrayal is perhaps the most impressive – the first two versions of Chiron are small and skinny, aiding the actor in playing a shy, uncertain youth. The third however, is a hulking, barrel-chested beast of a man, adorned with golden teeth and suitably lavish ‘bling’. Despite this, the response to his character is the same. He still comes across as shy, still vulnerable and uncertain of himself, hesitating over speech and not imposing himself on social situations.
The unwavering portrayal of life with such humbleness and subtlety echoes Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in many ways. Like Linklater, Jenkins doesn’t force anything upon the audience, he simply shows it. Where Moonlight differs from Boyhood however, is that it possesses a greater social outreach. The film undoubtedly aims at highlighting the drug problems within the less well-off black communities in Miami, with Chiron’s mum, Paula (Naomie Harris), as the perfect case study for this. Her life is punctured by an addiction that slowly drains away both her funds and responsibilities, in turn damaging her son’s already-fractured psyche. However, Juan, who is himself a drug dealer providing Chiron’s mum with the drugs, contradicts this message in part by rescuing Chiron from his mother by providing food and shelter.
The cyclical complexity is perfectly indicative of how this film is about so much more than just poverty, or just homosexuality, or even a combination of the two. It takes issues and grapples with them constantly without releasing the vice. Under the Moonlight there is no right or wrong: only the powerful presence of cold, stark reality.