Calvin Law reviews Barry Jenkins’ touching coming-of-age drama – nominated for 8 Oscars including Best Picture.
There’s much to fuel a cynic’s reservations about Moonlight‘s widespread acclaim. That it’s doing so well on the awards circuit could be blamed on a reaction to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy last year. Broadly outlined, the plot – the story of a young black man, Chiron (played at three different stages by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), as he comes to grips with his homosexuality – might have in the wrong hands become an overwrought piece of ‘message’-heavy cinema, dictating how you will and should feel about the subject matter at hand. In director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins’ hands, however, this rhapsodical yet very much grounded, surreal and beautiful but also gritty heartbreaking coming-of-age tale is easily one of the year’s best.
Jenkins undoubtedly has something he wants to say. It’s testament to the strength of not only his work, but also that of his production team and cast, that we never feel like we’re being dictated a moral lesson, or directly told what’s being conveyed. So much of Moonlight‘s success hinges upon its faith in the audience. We open with a neighbourhood drug dealer, who encounters a timid and distant young boy and is subsequently introduced to his crack-addicted mother. Jenkins and his screenplay entrust us not to make snap judgement about these characters, and – through naturalistic discourses and interactions between them – gradually unravel the depth to these multidimensional figures.
The drug dealer, Juan, is played with captivating magnetism by Mahershala Ali, a trustworthy character actor and feel-good awards success story. Juan contains both the kindhearted man who assumes the role of a mentor to break child Chiron (Hibbert) out of his shell, offering wisdom and compassion with eloquence, and the darker edge of the criminal; Ali’s portrayal merges apparent contradictions seamlessly into a kind but flawed man. One might take exception to his early departure from the film, but what he does in his limited screen-time is more than enough; it’s a performance all about the subtle, little things, devastating in its nuanced emotional impact. Like last year’s winner, Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies, this strong nomination for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar delivers a powerful and mesmerizing performance effortlessly, playing with a ‘type’ of character done to death with fresh originality. The other cast member to have gained an Academy Award nomination, Naomie Harris, disappears effortlessly into the role of Paula, Chrion’s emotionally abusive mother. It’s a very big performance, but it works extremely well for the film, and her character’s drug-addled state builds up to quite the heartbreaking conclusion.
Though most of the awards attention, acting-wise, has been focused on Ali and Harris, the film is very much Chiron’s story. The film begins with a distanced focus on Chiron, gradually gaining a more intimate perspective into his life and relationships. Yet till the very end he’s an enigma, fittingly for a film all about self-exploration and figuring out who you’re going to be in the world. The three actors who play our protagonist don’t look much alike, and according to Jenkins never met on set, yet feel completely authentic as the same individual maturing over the ages. They each bring something different to the table – Hibbert is all quiet reserve and timid uncertainty, playing off the warm performances of Ali and the excellent Janelle Monáe as his sweet but firm girlfriend beautifully. Sanders pulsates with repressed anger and passion underneath a stoic exterior, and is absolutely incredible in the scenes he lets loose. And Rhodes, delivering a colder, more incisive variation on the drug dealer with a heart, is machismo posturing hiding a tortured soul, trying to make sense of a past that continues to haunt him.
Jenkins never feels the need to vocalize directly what’s going on with Chiron – the intent of the film is not for you to assume anything about him, but to watch as he finds his way in the world. Joining him on his journey is Kevin, an important figure in Chiron’s life who Jenkins expertly subverts from everything you might expect of a ‘supportive’ friend character. Also played immaculately by a trio of actors – Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland – Kevin appears more assured and assertive, the extroverted yin to Chiron’s introverted yang, but the relationship that burgeons between the two is not necessarily what you’d expect. We watch as Chiron and Kevin’s friendship blossoms, falters, and picks up again in an awkward reunion many years later. This reunion is one of Jenkins’ crowning achievements of the film, as he balances the silent glances and understanding between the characters with minimalist dialogue that says a lot with little.
Moonlight is very much a symphony in three acts, retracing and linking similar themes in each segment, and establishing a continuity through the central figure of Chiron. The breathtaking score by Nicholas Britell varies itself by each time period while retaining the core soul to his classical movements. Britell, remixing hip-hop with the beautiful orchestral score via a ‘chopped and screwed’ technique, helps enhance the film’s greatest scene: Juan teaching Chiron how to swim at the beach. The score ‘Middle of the World’ is something to behold, as is the cinematography by James Laxton that gives such a surreal vibe, the acting, and the authenticity brought to it by it really being Ali teaching Hibbert how to swim. As beautiful as scenes like these are, they don’t detract from the more hard-hitting sequences – for example, teenaged Chiron’s torment by the school bully unfolds in very realistic scenes, and feels perfectly attuned to the same universe where a swimming lesson has such otherworldly beauty.
As great as all these elements are, the film’s trump card is in the script. The film’s structure works as effectively as it does because, though it is chronological throughout, it starts anew and ‘refreshes’ with each segment. A little bit more about Chiron is learnt in each period, a little bit is lost and gained, but the gaps never feel like gaps so much as natural progressions between spots of time. Anything that happens offscreen feels as vividly drawn as anything we see onscreen thanks to the inherent power of the script and dialogue. And each segment, though distinctive in its own way, gives an overarching insight to its characters so genuine in emotion, but never overly sentimental. Moonlight is an important film, but also a very small and low-key in its importance. It’s a tremendous film, and one can only hope it will set a precedent for low-budget, indie character studies to come.
Moonlight is out in UK cinemas this Friday, February 17; and is available now on the U.S. iTunes store. See the trailer below: