Great cinema haunts you. It creeps into your imagination and, for the days, weeks, years afterwards leaves ghosts as your memories of it. If there was any way to try and describe the feeling that you’re left with after ‘Moonlight’, the second film from writer/director Barry Jenkins, it would be that you are haunted by it, in the best possible way. It is the story of a lifetime, both in how it covers a single life and in what it says about what it is to be alive, connect with one another and see those connections either grow into something beautiful or shatter into a million pieces. When we talk about pure, great cinema, it’s films like ‘Moonlight’ that we’re talking about.
‘Moonlight’ is divided into three acts, each taking on a different moment in the life of young African American man Chiron - as a child (Alex Hibbert), as a teenager (Ashton Sanders) and as an adult (Trevante Rhodes). In each act, we watch each age of Chiron battle with his identity, understanding of his place in the world, his difficult relationship with his drug-addict mother Paula (Naomi Harris), the complex nature of his masculinity and his understanding of his own sexuality. His story is pinned to the few strong relationships he has, with his mother, with couple Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe) who take him under their wing and protect him, and his childhood friend Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland).
Based on an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, ‘Moonlight’ is a film of almost incomprehensible emotional scope. With Jenkins handling both screenplay and direction, the synchronicity between the story and the film itself is staggering, each complementing and emboldening the other. Somehow, the film manages to be both intimate and epic at the same time. Its focus on Chiron and his small world is at every turn microscopic, James Laxton’s cinematography capturing the landscape of silent faces rumbling with hidden emotion, but the emotional scale of Jenkins’ screenplay is such that even within the most intimate moments, there are points in ‘Moonlight’ where the enormity of its emotions seems overwhelming. Every single frame and every moment of aural and visual magic that is captured within them aches with pain and longing, practically from the moment it begins. That a film can contain so much and handle such a mountain of complex, delicate ideas and yet still feel entirely personal is a monumental feat, and I don’t mean personal for the filmmaker (though that’s just as crystal clear in every frame).
The circumstances of Chiron’s story are sharp and specific, a young gay man of colour growing up in impoverished circumstances built almost entirely against him, in a country where his gentleness, his sexuality, his circumstances and the colour of his skin are seen as marks against him, and where the concepts of what makes a man are dark and murky and contradictory. And yet, by handling each of these complexities with such honesty, conviction and integrity, the film becomes about each of them, all of them and none of them all at the same time. It’s hard to explain without potentially sounding offensive or reductive, but as much as ‘Moonlight’ is a monumental moment in the history of both queer and black cinema, the culmination of it makes it even bigger than both. What Jenkins has crafted with such staggering artistry is one of the most totally human films of this century, writ intricate and delicate across the tortured face of its devastating protagonist, and because of this - thanks to its specificity of circumstance and situation - the film feels like it was made just for you, tapping into whatever it is that strikes you about it so deeply, that you feel you’ve seen your own life played out in Chiron’s weary eyes.
The craft of ‘Moonlight’ is symphonic, a perfect culmination of every craft cinema has at its disposal. Laxton’s cinematography is insanely beautiful and delicate, the images placed together with poetic precision by editors Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders. Nicholas Britell’s score applies the cut-up texture of hip-hop to a purely classical score, imbuing the film with the kind of sonic grace we associate with music from the greatest composers in history, a score filled with simple and overwhelming sadness. Holding that all together, in perfect unison with his screenplay, is Jenkins’ miraculous direction, demonstrating the voice of a powerhouse filmmaker who refuses to compromise on the integrity of his film and its heart, pushing the boundaries of form and storytelling, and stripping the material back to such an extent that we’re left with bare muscle, pulsing veins and beating heart. As a statement of artistic intent, ‘Moonlight’ announces Jenkins as instantly one of the most exciting directors in the world.
What Jenkins has crafted with such staggering artistry is one of the most totally human films of this century, writ intricate and delicate across the tortured face of its devastating protagonist.
When it comes to the performances, every single one can best be described as staggering. Much of the attention on the film has gone to Harris and Ali, both of whom are stunning, but the real heart of the film lies in the central performances from Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes. Each performance on its own is amongst the finest captured on film, but cumulatively as parts of the one character, they transcend description. Their performances are each equally as skilled, as delicate and as utterly devastating as each other, and even though the ages and key circumstances change between each of their acts, the soul of Chiron is there in each of their eyes. If there is any justice, each of them will be nominated for Oscars, closely followed by Piner, Jerome and Holland for their equally breathtaking collective performance as Kevin, the one chance at each stage for Chiron’s salvation from the abyss growing within him.
Films like ‘Moonlight’ are almost impossible to write about because they defy any kind of description. The truth is, I can’t completely put into words what this film is like because it transcends in many ways any concept of what we often expect cinema can do. It left me shaking, sobbing and overwhelmed, by the power of its craft, the quietly epic poetry of its protagonist and by its very existence. That it can be about so many things and yet become more than those things all at once is something miraculous. Every fibre of it aches with so much longing and sadness and hope that you feel it in your bones for days afterwards. ‘Moonlight’ is a masterpiece - furious, passionate, human, pure and perfect.