Moonlight full movie review - "You, in the middle of the world"
Richard Linklater's 2014 Boyhood boasted the tagline "one family's life; everyone's story," but in doing so, courted its most prevalent criticism.
The experience of a heterosexual Caucasian boy growing up with a broken family in midwestern suburbia, while impressive in scope, was an oft-told Hollywood parable, fraught with contrivances so familiar they near the archetypal, and hardly representative of its encompassing claims. Simply put, the "everyone" Boyhood championed was a cross- section of the country accustomed to having their voices heard. Well, here is director Barry Jenkins' companion piece of American life: a young African-American boy growing up in low-income housing in Miami, told with equally affective, lyrical intimacy, but finding truth in its singularity rather than archetype. Confidently understated, tenderly fragile, and heralding harrowing and heartwarming twists in kind, Moonlight is pointedly not everyone's story, but it's beautiful and resonant enough to be a story that everyone - yes, everyone - should see.
Jenkins revisits the recurring motif of Miami waves throughout Moonlight, and they begin to shape the film's form and heartbeat alike. With gentle but propulsive editing, Jenkins lolls back and forth between the formative events of protagonist Chiron's life, drifting between calmer spells and moments of agonizing hope (learning to swim; a tender, seaside first kiss) with the gentle cadence of a seaside swell, amidst a perennial undercurrent of trauma. Jenkins' flair for naturalistic pacing is effervescent, dwelling on the vibrancy of moments, while leaping years forward in time, excluding seminal events in Chiron's life, perfectly bottles the lyrical dreaminess of memory. Carefully unpacking the truth in each glimmer of cliché, Jenkins courts sympathy, not empathy - this is Chiron's story, not ours, and our job as audience is to bear witness. And this job, thanks to beautiful work by Jenkins and his talented cast, is nothing short of an honour.
Beset by chronic bullying (which, Jenkins clearly outlines, extends well beyond the schoolyard), confusion over his sexuality, and the encroaching drug addiction of his mother (the superb Naomie Harris, who masterfully avoids Oscar-bait grandstanding in favour of a more brittle portrait of impotent anger and desperation and bitter humour), the life of "Lil'", as he is insultingly branded by his peers, is not a carefree watch. He finds a sole island amidst his sea of hardships, at the home of a kindly drug dealer and his wife (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe; both magnificent, and voluminously emotive in their disappointingly fleeting screen time), until his young mind connects the dots to their profiteering off his own mother's downward spiral. It's an almost overwhelming devastating moment, and Jenkins doesn't milk it, but allows it to just sit, and the nuances of each character's silent pain to soak in. And if you think that's a flooring scene study, just wait until the film's third act, heralding the most wrenching diner sequence since Robert De Niro and Al Pacino crossed scowls in Heat.
Still, Jenkins' adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's theatrical play, is anything but dour. Poignantly concise, Jenkins instead dwells on the vastness of what is left unsaid, as Chiron struggles with the various performances of masculinity thrust upon him by his socioeconomic status throughout the three chapters of his life, and the multitudes of physical and emotional abuse he's still beset by. For a film with so little dialogue, the wealth of feeling Moonlight conveys is staggering. This affective infectiousness is thanks largely to cinematographer James Laxton's harsh contrast between the glaring starkness of daylight, and the vulnerability and exposure it brings, and the meditative, chiaroscuro solace of nighttime, when Chiron (and his audience) can finally find peace.
But above all else, Moonlight is Chiron's story, and it would be lost without the phenomenal work of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, portraying Chiron in his youth, adolescence, and young adulthood respectfully. Although the three actors are fairly physically dissimilar (itself a commentary on the rampant character growth Chiron experiences), Jenkins stated in an interview that the three were cast for having the same haunted eyes, and it's a bold, wholly lucrative creative choice. All three actors are astonishingly magnetic, bleeding out Chiron's soul in their silence, averted glances, and shrunken nonchalance betraying such a depth of longing. In Chiron's foundational relationship with childhood friend Kevin (equally majestically essayed by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland), the three sets of actors concoct mutually overlapping character arcs that capture some of the year's most jubilant and heartbreaking moments, while always tenderly believable.
More lyrical, poetic, and visually inventive than most comparable contemporary portraits of social realism, Moonlight may sashay between moments, emotions, decisions, and regrets with the inevitable lilt of the tides, but leaves a beautiful memory trail infinitely more resonant behind it. Jenkins does not spoon-feed, and the film's artistic stillness and ambiguity may not befit all cinematic sensibilities. But this is fundamentally truthful, essential cinema, and, like his mythological centaur namesake, the story of Chiron is one that should be heard far and wide, and is liable to stay with us for many years to come.