Starring: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Trevante Rhodes
Director: Barry Jenkins
Running Time: 120 mins
Synopsis: An intimate portrait of a young black man as he deals with a life of economic strife, a heroin-addicted mother (Harris) and a growing confusion around his sexuality.
The beats are familiar. A drug-abusing single mother who subjects her child to emotional abuse and neglect, but laced with guilt and love. A drug dealer with stature but graced with a heart of gold. A young man who through the exposure to these individuals and his own frustrations turns down a similarly dark path of violence and crime. Moonlight, directed by the soon-to-be-huge Barry Jenkins, has all these and more but succeeds immensely through a combo of inspired execution and terrific performances.
Echoes of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood are felt as Jenkins structures the film around three key moments of time in the early life of Chiron. The difference here is the confused youngster is played by three separate actors at each stage as apposed to one actor filmed across multiple years. Opening with the 10yr old Chiron as a shy, intensely quiet presence, he is given the nickname Little just to exacerbate the pain of his reserved nature. Little by nature, Little by stature. Alex R Hibbert is a captivating young actor, his eyes awash with inquisitiveness and expression. At times it can be incredibly frustrating when he repeatedly closes down and refuses to talk, but when words do leak out they carry with them a greater power. The first time he speaks his name, which is coincidentally his first words in the film, resulted in a surprised gasp from the audience.
The one responsible for this sudden verbosity is Mahershala Ali’s Juan. A great beast of a man, we begin the film following him as he catches up with his local drug pusher, and immediately know that he is the top dog in these economically deprived neighbourhoods. Glimpsing Chiron as he attempts to allude a bunch of bullies he offers to take the child home and tries, to little avail, at figuring out where he has come from. Ali is phenomenal here, seeing in the boy a chance to right the wrongs of the path he has chosen, and to maybe assuage the guilt he feels that the boys mum is addicted to the very stuff he peddles to her. Generally a performer of power and stoic stature, here he is a calming gentle presence. Any hints of an angry side are only glimpsed in his encounters with Chiron’s mother. His final scene, sadly he sits out the other two portions of the film and the void is noticeable, is devastating as he has to face the damage he has indirectly caused this young man. The tears that fall from his eyes will be mirrored by your own.
Naomie Harris is the other major influence here and she works hard to elevate the somewhat cliched role of a heroin abusing parent. The love she sporadically shows for Chiron is all the more poignant especially when she spends most of her time badgering him and neglecting him. A final act of redemption is quietly played but powerfully honest. The depth of Harris’s performance is even more impressive when you consider she filmed this in between press duties for Spectre.
As the film jumps forward into the eyes of Ashton Sanders as a teenage Chiron, the scope of Jenkins casting genius is plain to see. Sanders is the spitting image of Hibbert and merges his performance in such a way that they feel one and the same. Still quiet and reserved but this time he has to deal head on with the growing rise of his attraction to men, or more specifically one man; Kevin. Also portrayed in all 3 segments by a different actor. Their budding desire for one another is beautifully sketched out. Beginning with an over-compensating boast of his sexual exploits with a fellow female student, before a late night run in with Chiron hiding out on the beach. In a moment of naked intimacy they get closer than both expected and it is wonderfully framed in a glowing moonlight, as the sounds of the crashing waves provide the only romantic soundtrack you ever need. (Similar to a lot of this years big dramas this eschews a consistent score in favour of effective silence)
Director Barry Jenkins is key to all of this becoming such a powerhouse of emotions. The decisions he makes help the film to rise above all genre conventions with ease, from the aforementioned score choices to a consistently unexpected use of framing. Whether its a scene of childhood swimming in the first act as the camera floats under and over the surface to highlight Chiron’s tentative acclimatisation to water. Or the decision to never explicitly show the drug taking or violence that must go hand in hand with an underbelly such as this. The one act of violence we do witness comes at the end of the second act as teenage Chiron finds himself having to fight the man who so beautifully opened his eyes to his true sexuality. Goaded into it by a fellow pupil, Chiron suffers an almighty beating and we crumple with the pain of all this just as he does. How he reacts to this and where it leads him prepares us for the inevitable direction of the final chapter. That is the genius of Jenkins’s writing here, both these first two acts end on tragic moments directly influencing the turn his character takes in the proceeding scenes. This helps to outweigh the potentially overwhelming step change that could have occurred with such a time jump.
Bulked up to the hilt, teeth coated in gold and trading drugs the older Chiron has finally become the man he was always leading to be. But in an unexpected turn the older Kevin makes contact. Upending his soulless drug peddling life and stirring feelings long buried (after Kevin’s phonecall Chiron wakes the next day to wet dream stained boxers). Their emotionally layered meeting is the final acts’ centrepiece and the two actors grip you completely. Andre Holland has a measured nervousness as Kevin, killing Chiron with kindness but underneath you see the effect that teenage liaison also had on him. But the real breakout is Trevante Rhodes. The early confidence he portrays in the opening moments of the third act are all but lost as his nervous hesitance belies the emotional vulnerabilities buried below. His breakdown in the closing moments is a rush of coiled anguish and soulful pain. The closing shot is nothing but perfect, a restrained note of hope and euphoria.
Although not all of us can relate to the drug-addled mother, or the drug dealing father figure, or even the economical plight he finds himself in, all of us can see the struggles inherent in finding your identity, in discovering your place in society and in the need to be and feel loved. Moonlight does this better than almost any film I’ve seen and it does it with nuance, subtlety and grace. The beats may be familiar but the execution is spellbinding.
Verdict: A film of snapshots, intimate and yet grand in scale. Beguilingly lensed, extraordinarily performed and gripping to the last potent shot. It calmly and effortlessly enriches the soul. It is a masterpiece.