Soon into director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) lies and gazes up at the domed, cloudless sky above him. The audience can trace the atmosphere down to the distant horizon where it meets the body of water — what looks to be the chilled Atlantic — in which the boy now rests, half submerged. The early moment in the film may be seen as an initiation of the story to follow, though it is hardly the beginning of Chiron’s. He is within throwing distance of the coast of Miami’s Liberty City, encapsulating the slums he has come to know as home.
The intrinsic scene — apart from what the title might suggest — takes place at high noon. Rhythmically, it’s more of a familial outing than a ritual. He’s held afloat by the hands of Juan, who stands in the water beside him. Juan — a drug dealer who has assumed the responsibility of the father Chiron never knew — houses a dual personality that is nearly impossible to dissect; the bounties of his profession seem to offer no shelter for a child, yet his steely eyes harbor shame, a desire for an innocence — however unattainable — he wishes for the boy to obtain.
Wisdom is oft symbolized by age in the movies. Enfolded by the religious connotation that this baptism of sorts harnesses, my mind resorted to Juan (played by Mahershala Ali) as the implanted Jesus metaphor, only to remember that it was John the Baptist (but of course) that blessed him. If it is Chiron that portrays the textual role of Christ, then he fills it by similarly undergoing stations of suffering; with a mother (Naomi Harris) addicted to crack, he has grown up amidst loneliness, poverty, and the torment he receives for his homosexuality (Juan first comes across Chiron in the abandoned apartment building he hides in to escape a bullying group of peers). Rather than surmounting the sins of others and rendering them powerless, however, he forges to seek his own temporary refuge. He is imperfect, and his internal demons will always be free to haunt him, regardless of the face he wears to fend the external ones off. It is more so that the sins he falls prey to are inspired; where they assert their dominion here, they cower elsewhere, where they are vulnerable. Chiron’s actions and perseverance will instead, unbeknownst to him, find cause beyond the fourth wall; it is for Chiron that some will mend their own hardness of heart. Others will be freed.
This review comes late enough for the reader to expect a comparison with the other universally acclaimed film of the year, La La Land, largely due to the late October release that has barely tipped over into Oscar season. The “rivalry” between them, while highly publicized, is largely fictional; I loved Moonlight as I did La La Land. Despite having seen the latter a week before I had the former, the two viewings felt like decades apart — Damien Chazelle’s 50s’-styled musical steeped in the contours of golden age cinema is an anachronism within a year of turmoil, where emotions can erupt pleasantly in the form of song and dance and an eighty piece orchestra can flower the gritty churn of modern life into a colorful and polished bow.
Moonlight is not plush with such choruses; it is instead pervaded by the skeleton of a melody, scored by minimalist Nicholas Britell. It still rang in my head — along with other thoughts — for the minute or so I sat into the final credits. The silence that accompanied me was not provoked out of awe, but rather out of custom, the most powerful words in the movie having been unspoken ones. Interrupting my speechlessness, I mentioned something to my friend about the exact antithesis to La La Land that Moonlight was; Mr. Chazelle’s joyous gallop through the bright side of Los Angeles was glossy enough to leave out even the meager woes of connecting flights at LAX.
“Antithesis?” my friend responded. “Those movies are on two different planets.”
If the latter hyperbole seems to be the more polarizing, I’ve learned that it’s actually the more accurate. Out of its sparse criticisms, La La Land has been degraded as numbing escapism, one that refuses to address the rising tide of political upheaval. While it isn’t fair to penalize a film for missing something it didn’t need to aim for, La La Land is nevertheless a supplement for its time, providing the modern era’s joyous release through another era’s impressionistic blissfulness. Moonlight is a similar facet in a period of cultural introspection, though where the imagery of La La Land evokes a shared adoration of classicism, Mr. Jenkins has given a face to a largely marginalized thread of society. La La Land is a celebration; Moonlight is a classroom of solitude.
If Director Richard Linklater — in using the same performers over the span of shooting — took twelve years to complete his masterful production of Boyhood, Jenkins has spent an equivalent, if not longer, duration crafting his work through thought and experience.
The inspiration for Chiron’s character is divided between Jenkins’ own childhood and that of Tarell Alvin McCraney, the author of the play — In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue — upon which the film is loosely based. Where the transitions tying Boyhood together are relatively seamless and inclusive (Linklater allows the smooth curve of time to give the film’s intermediaries their dictation and shape), Moonlight portions distinct blocks of Chiron’s path to adulthood into three acts, three actors, and three essential definitions of the ever-growing protagonist. Jenkins recognizes that the narrative leaps take hold of an emotional beat; Chiron’s various incarnations were advised not to meet with each other on or off set until filming concluded to avoid the cast members coordinating their acting methods.
Jenkins pays extreme attention to detail. The years that he chooses not to show — surely spent in conflict, confusion, and loss — contribute to more than a wrinkled facade. They breed mannerisms, attitudes, and outlooks. They create the shells of different people, and somehow, as if through spiritual means, the poetic Moonlight recognizes the same core being under each of them.
The revelation of Chiron’s identity promises a suitor to exercise it. His childhood friend, Kevin, is his first, and only, major love. This relationship is a forbidden one; where Romeo and Juliet had the disapproval of their parents to stifle their whereabouts — if not to make it more exciting — Chiron’s and Kevin’s is nailed down by the bleak sociological climate that lurks through their souls and others’. In their first intimate encounter on a beach side (Chiron here is played by Ashton Sanders), they reflect on the thousands of dreams lost at sea before them, perhaps those belonging to Chiron’s oppressive schoolmates who, by high school, have grown on him like a cancer. Chiron is not so much horrified by the ability to let go of this emotion as he is jealous of it. Though he sees it as an exit, reaching manhood (at which point he is played by Trevante Rhodes) can’t help him outrun his scars. As he further attempts to conform to the appearance he feels is expected of him, his physical connection with Kevin will fluctuate, though he will never distance himself completely by his own volition.
A collaboration with cinematographer James Laxton makes Moonlight absorbing for the right reasons; slow motion is enabled when we need more time to intake information, and handheld shots vanquish all focus when Chiron doesn’t have any. Beauty is transmitted through exposure — the director acknowledges two streams of consciousness, one fusing the parallels of the story and the other bolstering an audience’s trust in the screen. Indeed, the film’s depictions of a night sky are remarkable in how they look and feel. Rays of moonlight fall like the gold from a palace above, and as if by divine powers, the film’s inhabitants shine like vivid, grounded, and true royalty that has yet to be discovered by those who possess it.
With Moonlight being merely his second film (his first, Medicine for Melancholy, was released in 2008), Mr. Jenkins has very quickly claimed his rightful title as one of our most talented filmmakers, though not by the touch of any calculated style or brand. It was Socrates who stated that the unexamined life is not worth living. Jenkins is destined to become the philosopher of his generation; here is a director who has studied the foundations of his life and acquired the tools to rebuild them by heart.
Reviews can’t be more memorable than the movies they encompass. Perhaps, then, it will be wise of me to quote the director here: “Moonlight,” he writes in a personalized letter for Landmark Theatres, “is an immersive film. Or so I hope.”
Mr. Jenkins, even in his modesty, need not hope for this to be true. He has made an immersive film, for it is immersive in his eye.
Block Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★