There’s no magic existing in the Moonlight here. On the streets of Miami grows “little” Chiron, a young African American boy extremely small in stature. He gets constantly bullied. He lacks a father. He gets no assistance from his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), too concerned with finding her next high. The only stable adult figures he has are the drug dealing Juan (Mahershali Ali), and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe).
As Chiron grows, his identity does not. What he truly is and how he truly feels isn’t something that many people in environment can understand or care to, except for his one constant friend, Kevin. The tunnel can be dark, but sometimes it just takes a of little support, or even just the idea of it, to see it through to the light.
There are immediate comparisons that come to mind when one watches Moonlight. Films such as Dope and Boyhood deal with similar themes and literal central subject growth. It would be easy to overlook and possibly dismiss Moonlight as one of the many in the common coming of age genre. But that would be to dismiss its sticking power and directorial precision.
Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) serves as both the writer and director for this feature. Although inspired by a Tarell Alvin McCraney play known as In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Jenkins brings a lot of personal experiences into the movie, growing up as a youth in Miami. As such, the movie feels extremely authentic, by no means a autobiography, but a snapshot of what could be many African-Americans growing up. Everything in the story comes together nicely; no one character feels overwritten, underwritten, or of a caricature, and all moments that could have been overkill are handled with care. Broken into three parts, the movie invokes memories of Richard Wright’s 1940’s classic novel, Native Son. Each part is wonderfully paced, and Jenkins gives the audience enough to chew on and save away for later, and eventually, reflect upon in the end.
Perhaps the best thing about Moonlight, however, is that it truly doesn’t feel like it is written for a specific audience. Yes, it is written by a black man with an all-black cast, and race is an underlying theme throughout the movie. But, it isn’t the sole theme. Much like its poster which depicts sections of its central character to form a whole, race is but one part of the whole. That whole here being identity, comprised of race, sexuality, environment, societal expectations, and more. Any viewer should easily able to understand at least one struggle of the main character.
An unexpected plus of Moonlight is its impressive cinematography. All of it is very alluring, whether resembling something akin to the style of Boyz in the Hood and Menace II Society early on, or later in the movie when Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton stage a brilliant final act that takes place at night in a restaurant, then a car (quite possibly the best scene that few will talk about), and finally, an apartment. Raw is the word; there are many close-up shots of the characters that the camera just lingers on occasionally, making sure to lap up every single bit of emotion that this cast puts out. They etch themselves into the brain.
Going to go on record here and say that Moonlight is likely to be the launching pad for quite a few thespians. Only Naomie Harris is a known commodity in Hollywood, and her portrayal of a junkie mother is on the spot. Each actor that plays Chiron through his various stages of boyhood/manhood is wonderfully moving, but the actors who play the latter two stages of Chiron’s life stand out the most. For such a fresh face to the acting business, Trevante Rhodes (playing Chiron/”Black” in the final act) seems to be a natural and has the all-important screen presence. This could be a perfect opportunity for the Academy to be innovative and nominate all three actors playing the same role as “Best Actor.” Not to be forgotten are two other supporting actors in Mahershali Ali and André Holland (Selma). Ali ends the first act with poignancy, and Holland helps to end the film on an optimistic note. Both roles deserve acclaim, but Ali arguably steals the show despite being in for only a third of the runtime.
Moonlight is amazing storytelling and fully realized directorial vision that never once feels overly manufactured to make noise during the awards season. But it will, and it absolutely should.
Photo credits go to thewrap.com, collider.com, and indiewire.com.
Follow the Movie Man @MovieManJackson