As a critic, my job isn’t necessarily to recommend. My job is to discuss and contextualize and hope that whatever that takes the shape of pushes any reader towards a fuller understanding of film and to push themselves with this art the same way I do. I’m not necessarily endorsing or denouncing, though that’s going to happen just through speaking positively or negatively. I leave what the reader does up to them.
Except this time. If you’re reading this, go see Moonlight. Seriously. You, by the nature of the people I know, are most likely reading this within fairly short travel distance of a theater showing this film. If you care about guiding the hand of Hollywood towards making films from unique voices or featuring diverse faces and stories, then get out there and support this one. If you care about film as a medium and want to see something that pushes boundaries and does something vital and alive and staggering, then get out there and support this one. Hell, if you just need a good cry, then get out there and see this one.
For those of you who haven’t already left, fine, you need a little more convincing. Then let’s talk.
Writer/Director Barry Jenkins brings us Moonlight, a story of self-discovery and identity as a black gay man in Miami. It follows a man named Chiron through three periods of his life.
First, as “Little” (Alex Hibbert), a young boy bullied for his shyness and his size. His mother, Paula (Naomie Harris) is an emotionally abusive addict. His only friend is a boy named Kevin (Jaden Piner). A drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali), along with Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), takes Little under his wing and tries to give him some lesson about who he could be.
Next, as Chiron (Ashton Sanders), a gawky and awkward teenager who doesn’t quite fit in. Bullied and isolated, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) remains his only friend. His home life has fallen further apart as his mother slides further into addiction.
Finally, as “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), looking very different from the man we once knew. Musclebound with grills, he’s a dealer in Atlanta, trying to leave the person of his youth behind. A call from Kevin (Andre Holland) reconnects him with the life he once knew.
Finding words for Moonlight is a struggle. It’s such a vital and alive piece of work, one that is about the smallest gestures and the accidents of being human. It’s an experience that reminds me how much film exists in the smallest motions, in the juxtapositions of images and sounds. It’s incredible, a once-in-a-lifetime work.
I struggle to talk about it because it’s still a film I’m trying to pick apart, trying to understand what made it what it was, why I was an emotional wreck in the back of a theater.
Of course, as much credit as possible is due to writer/director Jenkins. In a just world, this is an announcement for the next great auteur, a filmmaker of singular voice and unifying purpose. From the opening shot, a slow track through a neighborhood following Ali’s Juan, there’s a certain reverence to the world, a languorous and painterly way that Jenkins moves his camera through.
Truly, this is a poetic work. It’s evoking a sense, a feeling, trying to grasp what it’s like to exist in multiple worlds and not feel like you belong in either. Moonlight is the feeling of trying to understand who you are and only grasping it piece by piece, year after year. Of never feeling quite whole. Jenkins has created something enormously evocative and deeply intimate, understandable through all lenses.
Understandable through all lenses, but refracted through a single one. This is a film about the black experience, about the queer experience. It’s specific about that, about the cultures those create and what it’s like to grow up as both. Again, it all comes back to Moonlight’s intimacy, that it makes you so much feel your connection with it, that it pulls you in and has you live beside it.
It’s the work of a very small ensemble of actors as well, all doing absolutely amazing things. Harris and Ali are doing incredible work here, both feeling like forces of nature, pulling Chiron along to a path he had so little control over. The work of the actors playing Kevin are all extraordinary, but none moreso than Holland, who does remarkably complex work as the adult Kevin who pulls Chiron back to Miami.
But this is a film about Chiron, told through him. The three actors who play him are all remarkable in their own way. Hibbert gives Chiron such reservation, the placid surface hiding turmoil underneath, holding his silence in just the right way to suggest so much. Sanders gives Chiron such damage, understanding the pain that his conflict brings him and how much the little joys that he gets to have bring him. Rhodes gives Chiron everything, turning in a staggering performance that builds on the work the other two do and giving him the last shading, understanding what has fueled Chiron to become who he has and what he will choose to be.
What every one of these actors knows, and what Jenkins understands most of all, is how much our interactions are in the looks and the gestures and the smallest thing. Every inch of this film, every moment is loaded with meaning and decision, every move motivated, every action has purpose. Every song choice adds richer texture, even the slightest shift in focus keeps us exactly where we need to be as an audience. It’s rare to find a film so deep in its detail.
This is a film about love and life. Rebuilding and devastating in equal measure, Moonlight is a once-in-a-lifetime sort of film. See this movie. If you do nothing else I’ve advised, see this movie. This is an important work and a work that is so well worth your time.