Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight has been in the awards conversation for a while and it’s about time I caught up with it. With its precise formalism and emotional authenticity it’s easy to why. Though 2016 is far from over, I have a hard time imagining a better film to come out of this year. The only criticism I can possibly give it isn’t really a criticism at all; that after seeing it about a week ago and mulling it over, Moonlight is a film I admire more than love. There’s so much to admire here though.
Moonlight is a film divided into three segments, separated by the changing identity of the protagonist. The first, entitled “Little” shows him as a small and isolated boy (played by Alex Hibbert), picked on by other kids, nearly abandoned by his drug addicted mother Paula (Naomi Harris), and bonding with his chosen father figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali). In the next, “Little” now goes by his given name Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and is in high school. He’s still picked on by other kids, though now their threat is now more pointed and violent. He has his first sexual experience with his only friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) and is then punished for it at school. His mother is more unavailable then ever, and Juan has since died. In the final segment, he takes Kevin’s nickname for him “Black” (Trevante Rhodes) and shapes into an identity somewhat resembling his old father figure’s. He has gotten mixed up in the drug trade in Atlanta, his mother has fortunately gone through rehab, and he tentatively looks to reconnect with Kevin (Andre Holland).
Content aside, watching Moonlight reminds me of watching a Kubrick film. This observation comes not from any specific shots, stylistic choices, or similarities in tone, but rather a feeling of control. Moonlight seems perfectly paced and expertly crafted; not one frame that unfolds onscreen feels like it shouldn’t be there or like it doesn’t have a purpose. That’s where my admiration comes from. The three segments of the film are all divided from each other very precisely as Chiron takes on his different identities, and there are three through-lines running throughout each segment, his mother, his father (figure) and how he goes on to emulate him, and his sexuality, both in how it isolates him from his environment and how it manifests itself in his relationship with Kevin. I don’t know what to make of this organizing principle of threes, but it makes for a very precisely structured film.
In the opening of the final segment, we see Chiron (now “Black”) driving his car. The set dressing and costume design signifies to us that Black’s personality is heavily modeled after Juan’s as depicted in the first segment, as least on the surface. We see his choice of occupation mirror Juan’s as well, and in a scene with one of his subordinates he instructs him, violently joking with him but ultimately embracing him, as we might imagine Juan would. In fact, when Black first appeared on screen for a split second I mistook Rhodes for Ali, thinking there had been some stunt casting involved, the outward presentation of the two characters is so pronounced. In this specific way the film reminds me of a Bildungsroman, a type of novel in which we see specific instances of someone growing up contributing to the formation of their personality in adulthood.
So then, what does Chiron’s personality consist of? As we know from films such as Citizen Kane, that can be a very hard question to answer, especially with someone as tight-lipped as Chiron. Throughout the film he doesn’t seem as much of a mystery and an enigma, a personality that keeps itself hidden, as much as one that hasn’t fully developed yet, a personality that is still in flux, which is probably closer to the truth of how people move through life. Is a person done developing, finally become the person they intend to be, just because they reach adulthood? Probably not, in the case of most of us.
This is why the last two shots of the movie were so affecting, as Kevin and Chiron’s faces fill the screen, fulfilling a promise of their past, then dissolving to Little on the beach, a repetition of the first segment. The end of Moonlight doesn’t suggest an end so much as the beach itself. Though each of his identities are separated by a title card, the images of his previous identities keep washing up to the forefront, like waves on a beach. It’s not the only instance of repetition throughout the movie, as we see repeated shots of Chiron’s mother yelling without sound, and if memory serves the order of events is roughly the same in each segment; I think a scene with Chiron and Kevin is at the end of each one.
I feel as if I’ve sort of spoken about what Moonlight makes me think of rather than accurately conveyed all of its merits as a picture, but I initially was so taken with its structure that I had a hard time getting past that in order to unpack what it’s “about.” It’s the mark of a great film when the two can’t really be separated. Moonlight didn’t quite strike me as a film that was Great for me when I was watching it, though I did recognize the superb craft that went into it. The more I think about how it depicts identity though, the more I find I can relate to it. There are a lot of movies I change opinions on in the process of reviewing them, and Moonlight got more personal for me as I was writing this review. Those movies almost always turn out to be my favorites.
Long story short: 4/4 stars
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