As director Barry Jenkins introduced "Moonlight" to the cinema-thirsty audience I sat with at this year's New York Film Festival, he stated that he wanted his film to be about real people. Not long into the runtime did I realize that it was also about all of us, only to further realize that Jenkins's words and my interpretation are completely interchangeable. Though the film is a character study of the highest order, it would be wrong to label it as such, because the people that Jenkins's camera dances around and examines with a graceful eye are as real as ever.
"Moonlight" treads thematically familiar waters, but is the absolute furthest thing from conventional. Never allowing the framework of African American life in South Florida to push its story and characters into the dark realm of stereotype, Jenkins transcends genre limitations by unearthing a plethora of emotion beneath the simplest of words and physical expressions. There is no single shot, scene or performance that rivals another. Every element blends together seamlessly into a beautifully hypnotic tour de force that demands to be seen by all walks of life.
We follow a young man named Chiron through three different stages in his life as he searches for identity, self-acceptance, and the love of those around him, while also struggling with his repressed homosexuality. Bullied by his classmates at age 9 (Alex Hibbert), Chiron - dubbed "Little" at school - finds a compassionate father figure in Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer. Juan offers the boy the attention and understanding his drug-addled mother Paula (Naomie Harris) fails to give him. His partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe) is also there to put food in his belly whenever Paula isn't around to do so. "Little" is not a talkative boy; he finds it much safer to look down at his feet or twiddle with the placemats on Teresa's dinner table. But as Juan continues to distract him from the drama at home, those sad eyes of his soon look up as the world around him begins to open up. Perhaps there is hope for the boy after all.
By age 16 (Ashton Sanders), Chiron still endures hostility at every turn, unable to defend himself from a new bully that feeds off of his misery. Though he has physically matured, Chiron remains that scared, lonely little boy we met at the beginning of the film. Juan is no longer around to keep him on his feet, but he does have Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), Chiron's only friend from school. At this point, they're already pretty close, having begun their friendship in a scene from the first chapter where the seeds of love for Kevin are planted in Chiron's head after engaging in a playful tussle. But it is in this middle chapter where their friendship paves the way for a key moment in Chiron's life. The two smoke weed on the beach under the stars. They talk about crying when no one else is around. "I cry all the time," Chiron says achingly, "I cry so much I could turn into drops." What follows is a scene powerful enough to make a straight white male like me well up with tears.
When he reaches adulthood (Trevante Rhodes), now going by the nickname "Black," Chiron adopts a hardened exterior, looking an awful lot like Juan in terms of attire and attitude. However, he continues to have difficulty expressing himself, and no amount of bling, grillz and swagger can hide that. For "Black," love nearly eludes him until a prospective reunion between him and Kevin (André Holland) prompts him to seek out whatever ounce of companionship he can find. The possibility of finally leading the life he has longed for excites Chiron, but the climax of his meeting with Kevin reaches a level of catharsis not he or the audience could imagine as the film ends on a breathtakingly poetic note.
There are no real standouts in "Moonlight," but in my mind there are a few elements worthy of being singled out. Ali's work as Juan is remarkable in the sense that you never see him as a drug dealer, just someone who happens to be. His character is given no backstory, but Ali allows us to read into who he is and how he possibly ended up in his shady profession. It's an exquisite performance. All three actors playing Chiron are brilliant, but Sanders deserves considerable praise, especially for that scene between him and Jerome (who is also exceptional) on the beach. Never has a teenage actor been able to communicate rage and sorrow simultaneously in such a stoic manner. Of all the faces in the film, Sanders's will linger in your mind the longest.
The score by Nicholas Britell, defined by a melancholy violin and a somber piano, is also a work of sheer beauty. Listen closely to Chiron's theme (you'll know it when you hear it), and you will notice how it emotionally evolves in tandem with the character. It's not a very memorable score, but it is so effective that I found myself whistling those lonely little notes that follow Chiron throughout the film after walking out of the theater. None of "Moonlight" is really meant to grab you in the way most Hollywood films strive to. It's not a film that leaps off the screen, but one that leaves an inexplicable impression in the way our fondest memories and deepest relationships with friends and family do over the magical course of time.