by Joanna van der Veen
Moonlight (2016) is only Barry Jenkins’ second feature film, but it sure packs one hell of a punch. It is a film that talks about race, sexuality, love, drug abuse, regret and much else besides – but which nonetheless resists obvious characterisation.
Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney,the film tracks one character, Chiron, through three stages in his life. Chiron is poor, black and lives in Liberty City (Miami), very close to where both Jenkins and McCraney grew up. He is obviously in some way different to his peer group – he knows it and they know it – and it’s indicated early on that this is related to his sexuality. His internal struggle with this forms the backbone of the film, which is split into three ‘chapters’,each about 40 minutes in length and named after the moniker Chiron adopts or is given in the corresponding period of his life.
In the first chapter, we meet him as a wide-eyed and taciturn child (newcomer Alex Hibbert), bullied at school and trying desperately to escape from his drug addicted mother (Naomie Harris). We meet him again as a teenager (Ashton Sanders), struggling with his feelings for a friend and dealing with loss and love in their various guises. Finally, we meet him again as a grown man (Trevante Rhodes), obviously shaped by what’s come before but still struggling to find his identity.
The above is deliberately vague about the specifics of what happens to Chiron: the film is best seen without too much prior knowledge of what to expect. Chiron’s story is a very particular case, but the magic of Moonlight is that his struggle is portrayed in such a way that most audiences will be able to find a way to relate to him. It is a coming of age tale that plays out in an extreme environment – but this enhances rather than alienates.
The film is buoyed by a series of fantastic performances. Each incarnation of Chiron is utterly convincing, and it’s certainly no mean feat to have three actors of three different ages blend into one cohesive whole. The three actors who play Chiron’s childhood friend Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland) are equally impressive. Mahershala Alishines as Juan, a local drug-dealer who takes young Chiron under his wing, and singer turned actressJanelle Monáe is charming as his wife.
Cinematographer James Laxton has done a stunning job on the visuals: many of the scenes are, quite fittingly, bathed in moonlight and the steamy still air of the Miami summer oozes palpably from the screen. The scenes with Chiron’s mother are made terrifyingly intense by some brave camera work; a tender scene in which Juan teaches Chiron to swim is mesmerising. The genius of this cinematography, which is more arthouse than urban Miami streetscape, is that it is not what you would expect from the subject matter or the premise of the film. There are no gritty stereotypes here – only real, imperfect people, struggling through the real, difficult world.
Similar things could be said about Nicholas Britell’s score. Classical music pops up at seemingly the strangest of times (including Mozart reworked over a childhood ball game), and Barbara Lewis’ Hello Stranger heightens an already emotionally charged scene towards the end of the film. Britell also gives each stage of Chiron’s life a theme song of sorts, making music an integral part of the film’s narrative structure.
The music and cinematographycombine to make Moonlight feel very poetic, an effect especially pronounced if you (like this reviewer) don’t really understand much of the slang used by the characters. A bit like watching a Shakespeare play and getting the gist without quite grasping the terminology, Moonlight’s dialogue carries you along on its rhythm and tone.
The surprising cinematography and musical choices reflect the duality at the heart of the film and within Chiron. Moonlight is a brave film: its approach to its subject matter risks turning a lot of viewers off. After all, why not just tell the story in a straightforward way? Would that not be a better way of bringing its themes to a wider audience?
It’s impossible to say, but Moonlight as it is a beautiful thing to behold. To fully appreciate it, you have to read between the lines: it’s complex, but going along with it is ultimately extremely rewarding. A must-see, and a must-see now.
Joanna van der Veen / Writer (London, UK – 1990) Joanna splits her time between freelance translation, writing and working for a local urban regeneration project. She loves films that err a little bit on the strange side, and previously worked for a multi-language radio station dedicated to independent cinema, attending a whirlwind of film festivals from London to Mar del Plata.