November 21, 2016
There is a moment in Barry Jenkins’ masterful film Moonlight that exudes such pure emotion that it is almost unbearable to watch. After awkward exchanges and passing remarks in public, the protagonists of the film, Kevin (Andre Holland) and Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), are finally alone. This comes after nearly a decade of separation. They are left to their own emotions and the demons of their friendship that have been left to fester within their troubled, uncertain souls. The two men shared a moment of intimacy on an abandoned beach as teenagers, a memory that stands between every one of their interactions as adults. Jenkins crafts an artful level of suspense in this scene, as he slowly guides the two characters to their true motivations: the emotions and memories they both refuse to acknowledge. The audience is taken aback when Chiron finally acknowledges what has been denied for years. His directness is stunning.“You’re the only man who has ever touched me,” he speaks easily, openly. Kevin looks him in the eyes, then displays a smile so loving it is impossible not to feel his joy. This scene serves as a stunning yet inevitable conclusion to a beautiful film that is a success because it deftly manipulates our emotions.
Moonlight tells the heartbreaking coming-of-age story of Chiron in three parts, each revealing another layer to his identity. Throughout these three parts, Chiron faces overwhelming societal and familial troubles, from a drug-addicted mother to tireless school bullies. The greatest struggle Chiron faces is internal, however; He struggles with accepting his own sexuality. Throughout all three parts, Chiron struggles with communicating and coming to terms with his sexual identity, especially in relation to his lifelong friend, Kevin.
The key to making the three separate parts of Moonlight work in a cohesive way are the performances. Three different actors play Kevin and Chiron, but each performance blends together while also being uniquely separate from each other. For example, the young Chiron bears little resemblance to the older Chiron, but the actors manage to craft tragic performances that feature few words but contain incredible sadness. The same can be said for the various actors that portray Kevin.
Ashton Sanders is my favorite actor that portrays Chiron in the film. He is given the most difficult material to work with: Chiron as a teenager. He must capture angst without becoming a stereotype, sexual-longing while still in the closet, and disappointment without seeming to expect too much from the world. Sanders captures all of these and more, as he portrays Chiron as an internally focused character. The actor chooses to focus more on the passion and the rage building up in the character, which is emphasized by his lack of words and expressed in his depth of facial expressions and body language. When Chiron reaches his violent breaking point, it is triumphant because the audience sympathizes about the distant loner, but it is also heartbreaking because they have witnessed a deeply thoughtful individual fall to violence. They don’t know Chiron, but they do know he is better than he thinks he is.
More than anybody else, Chiron’s friend and onetime lover Kevin seems to expect more from Chiron. In the third segment of the film, Andre Holland portrays a playful charisma but manages to display a sense of disappointment as well. He has witness Chiron’s sad downfall as a human being, and isn’t afraid to hide these feelings. Feelings characterize Holland’s performance, as can be seen in the already mentioned scene where Chiron admits his thoughts to Kevin. Another character-revealing scene is when Kevin plays a song he claims reminded him of Chiron. As the organ riff of Barbara Lewis’ “Hello Stranger” echoes out of an out of place jukebox, Kevin is awkward but honest. The song did remind him of Chiron, even if he has no idea why. But this is yet another of the odd moments that carry emotional truth and insightful character work in Moonlight.
While Kevin, Chiron, and the various actors that portray them are what viewers will remember, Moonlight boasts numerous great performances from supporting actors that deserve recognition. Mahershala Ali stuns as Juan, the mild-mannered drug dealer that serves as a surrogate father to young Chiron. Even when he’s not onscreen, his presence is felt as Chiron grows as a human being. Ali refuses to portray Juan as a typical thug, instead choosing to give him a sense of regret from his chosen trade. It makes one wonder if he is willingly dealing drugs or if it is simply what he is expected to do. Equally powerful is Naomie Harris as Paula, Chiron’s drug-addled mother. She can be cruel and unforgiving in certain scenes, while at other times very warm and nurturing to her son. The key trait of Paula is that she understands she is a drug addict, but accepts it as the way she is. This is the key element running throughout nearly every character in Moonlight: acceptance of where society has deemed they must be. No character places themselves where they want to be.
Barry Jenkins is what drives this stunning film’s success, as he has written all of these characters in ways that will remain with audiences for years to come. Adapting an unproduced play written by Tarell Alvin McCraney titled, “In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue,” Jenkins crafts a deeply philosophical screenplay that is centered in troubled social times but focuses on the psychological effects these have on the people that live through them. Jenkins creates a kind of tough poetry for these characters to speak in. They use the language of the streets they live on, with profanity and epithets lacing their words. However, there are stunning sections of deeply poetic language throughout the film. One of the most memorable lines of dialogue is during Kevin and Chiron’s intimate beach scene, where Chiron admits, “I cry so much I could turn into drops.” This isn’t flowery, and doesn’t even make that much sense, but it bears an emotional and abstract truth.
Jenkins’ other great accomplishment with Moonlight is its unique direction. Some will be confused and even disoriented by the film’s direction, but I think it is a perfect example of daring filmmaking that isn’t afraid to confuse viewers. While many will be turned off by its excessive use of shaky camera work, I believe this makes the film more effective. Moonlight is not afraid to confuse viewers with its narrative leaps, so why not with its filmmaking style? The filmmaking almost seems like a documentary at times, but hallucinatory and dreamlike at other times. It captures Chiron’s view of the world, therefore it is perfect for this film.
Another aspect that perfectly serves this film is Nicholas Britell, who contributes a stunning and experimental score to the film. Swerving and darting strings highlight the dreamlike tone of the film and heighten emotions. Most importantly, Britell knows when to back off when the characters need to speak for themselves. Music is a subtle but important aspect of Moonlight, as it captures the contradictions within the characters. Along with Britell’s excellent score, many previously existing pieces are used. These encompass many genres and times, including classical, soul, and older as well as more recent hip-hop and rap. These selections accentuate the world Chiron lives in, while also alluding to his inability to fit in.
Moonlight will likely be stereotyped by casual moviegoers as a film about a gay black man, but that does not come close to capturing the true universality of this film’s themes. It is a deliberate move on Jenkins’ part to not focus on social issues, as he does not even define a certain time period the film takes place in. There is also a lack of discussion and activity involving Chiron’s sexuality, which emphasizes his desire to not accept himself. Foregoing these more specific details, Jenkins instead crafts memorable characters that are influenced by their personal situations but feel universal. By capturing specific emotional details in small scenes, Jenkins creates details everyone can relate to. As soon as the camera cut from Kevin’s final, glorious smile, I didn’t want Moonlight to end. I wanted to see the smile again. It was a smile I have seen before, a look I’ve seen and even given before. It is the look one gives when they are with someone they are truly themselves with.