This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Savannah Oakes’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
“You’re the only man who’s ever touched me . . . I haven’t really touched anyone, since.”
Unsurprisingly one of the year’s best films is a touching looking at a gay black man, poverty and masculinity. Despite these topics being somewhat subjective the universality of the film’s themes of love and self-acceptance push the film to a much larger scope. It highlights the effects of drug abuse, mass incarceration, and violence without heavy-handedness.
Moonlight is crafted with honesty and tenderness but still somehow manages to have a sharp edge that stings and burns when all you want it to do is heal you. Everything surrounding it is full of love, hope and humanity but the sharpness comes realizing the privilege we as an audience have in witnessing this story which director Barry Jenkins has been open enough to bring to life through his own experiences.
Moonlight takes us through three parts of Chiron’s (also called Little and Black) life—child, teenager and adult. The film does not attempt to fill in questions from stage to stage. Instead it does the best thing—to show us the whole of the boy and man in front of us and allow his actions, or lack thereof, to speak for who he is in those moments. It is this decision that ultimately allows us to come to a conclusion on the man as a whole—who he was and continues to be.
The film is shot beautifully with dark, gritty realness but the swirling cameras and hauntingly colored lights bring poetic touches. The camerawork at times is what some may call amateurish. More often than not, given the size of the film, I’d called it economical. Even still the assignment of amateurish implies Jenkins and cinematographer, James Laxton, directed and shot this film without purpose. This is a film dripping in purpose.
The premise is surprisingly familiar but intricate. The clear defining difference in this “black-boy-from-the-projects-redemption” is clearly the queer element. To be black and queer is a battle of identity and to be a black man and queer is a well-known adversity. It is the moments that uncover Chiron’s struggle with his sexuality that are most emotionally profound. This is because in these moments which are universally experienced—a first kiss, a conversation with a crush, bullying, etc.— a queer person is instead forced to feel and experience mistreatment, fear, repression, isolation and guilt.
The poeticism the camerawork and coloring attempt to capture is mirrored poorly in the editing of the transitions. For each segment--“i. Little” “ii. Chiron” and “iii. Black”—the title card is preceded by an oddly chosen moment that lacks resonance or a scene that feels as though the next segment should already have begun. The flashing lights that appear before each segment feel like the natural transition full of the sensitivity and patience the rest of the film embodies. The confusing scenes make the weight of the shift feel forced and cause the consistently smooth pace and emotional grasp the film has on you to falter. However, it is to Jenkins’ and the team’s credit that any faltering is quickly forgotten.
Mahershala Ali has a tough job. He’s a drug dealer with a heart of gold—a cliché like the hooker with a heart of gold. On top of walking that contradiction he must also be a surrogate father and also, even in his little screen-time, a premonition of what Chiron will become. His portrayal of Juan transcends the film and he appears to do it with an apparent ease.
Janelle Monáe makes the most of a small roll. She presents herself as wise but brings the audience and Chiron in with charisma and kindness. Her decision to approach Teresa with a layer of calm and a sense of security works well in contrast to Paula (Naomi Harris). Harris is downright terrifying in her performance. She captures the downward spiral of a paranoid, drug-addicted mother as accurately as I ever want to see. Jenkins and Harris work their nuance to make Paula more of a demon Chiron must embrace than a one-note villain he must escape from.
The acting of our three leads—Little, Chiron and Black—flow naturally from actor to actor. Each felt as though each interior of the other actors were with—giving some sort of unseen guidance. Their performances were quite similar to Affleck’s performance in Manchester by the Sea. Like Affleck Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes all present a stoicism that is projective. However, unlike Affleck these three performances, particularly Rhodes, reveal a boiling beneath the surface of such intensity that cannot ever be imagined. These men are different—Affleck is stoic because he’s forcing emptiness while fighting despair. It’s to keep himself from himself. In contrast Rhodes is stoic because he’s forcing the anger and insecurity down as far as he can make it so no one will even see him flinch. He’s keeping himself from everyone else but never, despite what his face reveals, loses what he feels.
Moonlight is surely something special. It’s exploration of identity, its subtlety in writing and performances guide the audience through the tumultuous nature of the film and the occasionally subversive camerawork. Jenkins’ tale of love, fear, repression and longing is one that will stay with you as much as it has stayed with its protagonist but I don’t know if we as an audience will be able to hide our broken heart as aptly as Little, Chiron or Black.