Review: Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight is small and focused and beautifully particular in its storytelling and characters. It’s the type of delicate filmmaking that is rare about a cinematic character who is even rarer. This being the case, it’s excusable for critics and audiences to be over the moon for the film, even though its originality masks some minor rigidity in structure. To be clear, Moonlight is very good, but when the buzz over sociological originality fades, the sharp observational filmmaking is what will remain.

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins based on an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight details the life of Chiron in three distinct chapters. Chiron is poor, black and gay. In the first chapter he’s played by Alex Hibbert as a boy seemingly incapable of speaking a full sentence. A local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), befriends Chiron after he witnesses him being bullied and becomes a surrogate father of sorts to Chiron. He genuinely cares about the boy, even if he represents the sort of black machismo that makes life so hard for people like Chiron.

In the second chapter, Chiron is now a lanky teen played by Ashton Sanders. He finds it a bit easier to talk, but no easier to exist in his beachside Miami environment. Juan is no longer around. His mother (Naomie Harris) is more devoted to narcotics and hatred than ever. His only solace rests in Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), his sole friend and potential lover.

In the third chapter, Chiron has left quiet awkwardness behind as a hulking drug dealer played by Trevante Rhodes. He’s become an image of the macho masculinity that once terrorized him, but behind his gold grill and do-rag lies the same sensitive, quiet, gay boy at odds with himself. He reconnects with Kevin (now played by André Holland) and in that relationship lies opportunity for belonging.

Moonlight’s triptych structure is key. It lets us see through three windows onto Chiron’s life—important moments in his development and self-understanding—but we do not see the whole journey. It plays a bit like Boyhood by way of The Place Beyond the Pines, although its blackness is worlds away from those blindingly white films. The structure forces us to play catch-up and closely observe the character without getting inside his head. This can occasionally be disorienting, as in the third chapter where the bulky, intimidating Rhodes looks nothing like the thin and wan boy we knew as Chiron. But Jenkins is wise to keep these chapters self-contained and leave exposition by the wayside.

However, the structure is too neat. The third chapter too closely mirrors the first. Chiron becomes a version of Ali’s Juan, which simplifies his psychology. Another mealtime conversation reveals the struggles of our hero just as it did in the first. This narrative symmetry causes the film to contain a balance that is literary, but too obvious, especially in a film that avoids convention in most other ways. It’s nice on the page, but less so on the screen. But it’s a trifling matter in a film that offers much richness.

Jenkins deeply understands Chiron and never overplays his hand in explaining away what makes him special. He avoids trite dialogue or reflective statements, instead using the camera to reflect psychology and narrative. Moments reminded me of the films of Terrence Malick, especially whenever Chiron made his way to the ocean at nighttime, standing on the sand while bathed in blue light. Few films have paid as much attention to the beauty of black skin. Too often, Hollywood cinematography doesn’t know how to light anything other than white skin. Moonlight corrects this prominent artistic shortcoming.

Moonlight is beautiful and human, although a little too tidy. It’s a rich film celebrating Chiron’s humanity, without belittling or reducing him to simple identity politics. I can understand people’s rapture about it, even if I find it short of greatness.

8 out of 10

Moonlight (2016, USA)

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins; based on a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney; starring Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, and Mahershala Ali.