Some movies have the ability to wash over you and envelop you like a wave. They stir emotions and thoughts from deep within. Even if you’re just a straight, white dude from the Midwest watching a movie about the three phases of a young gay black man’s life in Miami.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a beautiful ache of an experience. The whole movie plays out like a tone poem of a man searching for, yearning for, a connection. It’s a film about acceptance, love, family, and youth. More importantly, it’s about Chiron.
Jenkins, who both wrote and directed the film, has crafted an intimate portrait of a young man coming to terms with himself. In his strive for specificity, he has managed to make something that will speak to everyone. Along with James Laxton, his cinematographer
The camerawork by James Laxton lends an air of epicness to the film, but he grounds it with the tight close-ups of the characters.There’s a sensuality that flows through the movie. It’s not an erotic sensuality, more of a sumptuous sensitivity to human contact.
Moonlight luxuriates in the little moments. Tiny moments are allowed to breathe and linger, like a sense memory. Take the scene where Little Chiron (Alex Hibbert) caresses his best friend Kevin’s (Jaden Piner) cheek. Little seems intoxicated by the feel of Kevin’s skin.
Or the way Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who takes Little under his wing. Juan instantly understands there’s something different about the boy. This difference is given clarity and voice in the scene between Juan, his partner Teresa (Janelle Monae), and Little. Little asks Juan what the word ‘faggot’ means.
What follows is one of the most heartfelt and wonderfully handled scenes I’ve seen this year. The pauses and ache in Juan’s voice as he tells Little the meaning of the word. The way Teresa holds Little’s hands as Juan tells him it’s okay if he doesn’t know what he is right now. The slight left turn the scene takes, is as powerful as it is quiet.
Jenkins eschews melodrama and instead goes for quiet moments. There’s a scene of abrupt violence with a teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) that is palpable. The anger and frustration of the young teen resonate off the screen. In another director’s hands, it would have been telegraphed or played big. Instead, it’s played as it is. An unexpected act by a confused and angry man.
Earlier on the beach, he thought he had found a connection with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). Kevin had opened up to him and had been there to listen to Chiron. The two made both an emotional and physical connection. Teenage Chiron’s years swell with longing and confusion.
None of this is helped by Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris). She has little time and less love, for the young Chiron. Her addiction is what fuels her. You never get the sense that Paula is just an addict. It’s clear in her way she is trying to find a way to connect with Chiron. He’s not the boy she wanted, and so she’s at a loss as to how to deal with him.
Again we find ourselves talking about longing and connection. Kevin both young and teenaged seems to be dealing with this as well. He’s the one who initiates contact both as a child and on the beach. So when Kevin (Andre Holland) calls a grown Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now going by Black, it’s a shock to everybody involved.
Chiron, a dealer now himself, is taken aback. He’s bulked out, put on weight, has gold grills for his teeth, and walks with a swagger. He’s moved to Atlanta now to be near his Mom while she does rehab. He’s still lost, still looking.
It’s only while meeting with Paula at rehab, that Chiron starts to find the connection he yearns for. This reconnection leads to him driving back to Miami to see Kevin. They meet at Kevin’s diner, they talk, they flirt. They connect.
Jenkins has gifted us a movie that reminds us that stories can not only move us but haunt us as well. The last shot of the film is perfect. The whole movie is excellent. Moonlight is the type of movie that puts its arm around you while you watch it. It’s just a beautiful, lovely, masterful film.
Image courtesy of A24