Moonlight – Movie Review
Rating: B+ (Very Good)
Trailer/Thumbnail Courtesy Elevation Pictures
Moonlight does not break new ground in the coming of age subgenre but, by framing it within what are essentially three short films, director/writer Barry Jenkins is able to focus on his lead and his changes. There is a subtlety to the filmmaking and he is able to dig deeply into the mindset of Chiron. The film is really about him living his life and dealing with the troubles that come from living in this environment. Jenkins is also able to make the people around Chiron just as interesting and dimensional as he is. The result is a smart film more focused on the imagery and letting the characters speak for themselves.
Barry Jenkins’s biggest accomplishment in his direction is putting the audience in the setting. There is an intimacy and almost a familiarity to the places Chiron goes to, especially early on. This is most evident in contrasting the homes of his drug-addicted mother and Juan, a friendly man he befriends while hiding from bullies. One is harsh, while the other is welcoming. This also comes through in the performances of Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae. Harris is unrecognizable as Chiron’s mother, whose mistreatment of him makes it easy to see why he looks for comfort in others. Ali delivers the strongest performance in the cast, effectively giving wisdom and playing one small part in shaping Chiron. Meanwhile, Monae proves to be a better mother figure than his real matriarch, showing a lot of warmth and caring.
While the three segments are connected, Jenkins structures them as three individual stories with a beginning, middle and end. The most compelling is the middle chapter as a teenage Chiron tries to grapple with his sexuality, a frustrating relationship with his mother and the bullies at the school. Jenkins effectively portrays his outsider status in the school and there are certain tricks in the camera framing that showcase this element of his character. Most importantly, he allows Chiron to make his decisions with minimal dialogue. That’s a key trait of his through each of the segments, almost representing his need to keep everything locked inside.
The three actors playing Chiron at the various stages of his life also work on linking the chapters together. Alex Hibbert has the least dialogue out of all of them, but believably shows a lot through simple gazes and his connection with Juan feels genuine. Ashton Sanders gets probably the most heavy lifting as Chiron goes through a wide array of emotions when dealing with the various tormenters and lovers in his teenage years. The vast majority of Trevante Rhodes’s segment take place in a diner as he reconnects with an old school colleague and that returning buzz of affection returns here, but Jenkins never drowns the audience in sentiment.
It’s that subtlety in the filmmaking that makes Moonlight work. This is a film that benefits from its low budget and Barry Jenkins takes us to the inner city and into the mindset of this young man. It touches on themes of loneliness and homosexuality in a way that allows the viewer to connect with its main character. It’s a unique enough film that it’s hard to even make comparisons to other movies. It becomes an unflinching and well made coming of age film that soaks us in this environment and does not resort to theatrics in bringing this story to the screen.