Moonlight | Barry Jenkins | NYFF 2016
Every so often a movie like Moonlight comes around and leaves you stopped dead in your tracks, completely in awe of what you just witnessed. And yet, in the hours, and days following your exit of the screening, you’re left still thinking about the film in your mind, eager to discuss it with others. It’s the type of film that comes out only every so often, a work that’s more of a masterpiece than just another entry into the filmmaking zeitgeist. It’s one of the best movies of this year, or any year.
Director Barry Jenkins returns eight years after his 2008 debut Medicine for Melancholy, adapted Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” into a cinematic experience for the ages. In many ways, it’s a timely piece of cinema that couldn’t have come out at a better time.
Set in Miami, Moonlight follows the life of a young African American boy named Chiron (Alex Hibbert). We meet the young man as he’s running from a pack of bullies who have a sense that he’s a little different. They don’t quite know it yet, and neither does Chiron, but he’s a gay boy growing up in a crime-ridden area where that sort of thing isn’t too common. But ironically, he’s saved by a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who finds Chiron hiding from the bullies in a trap house, and takes him under his wing, feeding him and sheltering him for the night until he and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe).
He has to fend for himself and find support in total strangers because of the drug-addiction of his mom (Naomie Harris) that prevents him for truly taking care of her son. The cruel irony of all this is that she’s getting these very drugs Juan, the same man whose frustrated with the failure of Chiron’s mom to take care of a boy who clearly needs the love and affection that he desperately deserves.
Told in three chapters, we see Chiron start out given the nickname “Little” in the first. In the second, we see him in high-school as Chiron (Ashton Sanders), where he’s tormented daily by a bully (Patrick Decile) and has a strange relationship with a boy named Kevin (Jaden Piner) who makes Chiron’s sexual questions a little more clear. By the third chapter, we see Chiron evolve into “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), a much different version of himself, a direct cause of everything that comes before.
Jenkins so expertly weaves in and out of these three chapters, amazingly finding a way to create a common thread in each of the three performers. All three feel authentically like the same character, a testament to not only the actors but also the abilities of Jenkins. It may have been eight years since his last film, but clearly the director has only gotten better over time, proving ] to be one of the most important voices in cinema at the moment.
It’s not often that we see stories about gay black men in bad neighborhoods, on a tough journey of self-discovery. In a world where there’s a growing amount of hate and confusion about topics such as these, this story is more than welcome, especially when it’s told in such a strong manner that just feels human, and true. You can’t help but feel heartbroken with every new chapter and look inside Chiron’s life, as he’s constantly unable to truly be himself.
The performances are award worthy across the board. Young actor Alex Hibbert sets the tone as young Chiron, and both Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes take the character to the needed next levels that just break your heart even more. André Holland charms the hell out of you with his performance as Kevin in the final chapter, and singer Janelle Monáe surprises with her acting abilities, proving that she has a second career ahead of her. Naomie Harris makes the most of her screen time delivering a powerful performance that sticks with you. But it’s the performance of Mahershala Ali that truly sticks out. He’s only in the first third of the film, but his performance stays with the film, lingering like a cloud for the rest of the films duration, a truly astonishing feat.
Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton capture this tale in such a breathtaking manner. It’s camerawork isn’t necessarily showy, but the way they capture their subjects skin tones and the manner of their interactions is a thing of beauty. Nicholas Britell’s string-minded score absolutely stays with you, a perfect companion to this unforgettable tale.
Moonlight is yet another astonishing win for A24, and a show-stopping return for director Barry Jenkins, an artist who we should all be following like a hawk, excited for whatever he comes up with next. Moonlight is as close to cinematic perfection as I’ve seen in some time, what is sure to be the best film of the entire year.