Movie Review: “Moonlight” is the movie of the moment, and the best film of 2016 so far.
Moonlight, the second film from director Barry Jenkins, is a work that’s as intimate as a whisper, as devastating as a scream and like life itself, it’s over in the blink of an eye. It is, for my money, the greatest and most affecting American film of the year so far, and unless the next two months bring us a surplus of cinematic riches, I see it staying at the number one spot, or at the very least in the top five. An adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight is a film of staggering complexity, beauty and truth: a romance that is also the story of a long-term friendship that is also a parable about the perils of being black and queer in 21st-century America. It’s a film that will dig into your soul and while you may feel hollowed out by the time it reaches its quietly explosive climax I suspect some viewers may also feel spiritually reborn.
In a year where select groups of hand-wringing cinephiles are declaring that cinema as an art form is dead, Moonlight sees the medium surging back to life with a purpose of intent not seen since the great socially conscious art films of the 60’s and 70’s. This is a film that will be talked about for years to come, and perhaps one that will console legions of people young and old — some of whom may identify with the crippling loneliness and fear experienced by the film’s main character, a black man named Chiron — in the fact that they are not alone.
What Moonlight effectively does over the course of its runtime is distill the essence of a human life — complicated, fragmented, ugly, beautiful and real all at once — into 110 fleeting minutes. Of course, some will argue that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood already did this, though that film boasted a wooly, three-hours plus running time, and indulged in plenty of typically Linklaterian noodling along the way. That movie also contained some pretty egregious scenes that cannot really be ignored, like Bill The Drunk Stepdad screaming “I Hate Squash!!!” like he’s Matthew Modine in Short Cuts or something, or Patricia Arquette accepting the mantle of Gentle White Savior after to her dual interactions with the single Mexican individual who lives in Boyhood’s version of Texas.
Moonlight, comparatively, is a display in holding back. There is no indulgence, no noodling and not a single wasted frame in the film. Like the films of the great Charles Burnett — particularly his masterpiece Killer of Sheep, which was set in the predominantly black community of Watts, Los Angeles after the riots of the 1960’s — Moonlight is a tapestry of moments so intimate and real that they seem ripped from the patina of life itself. It is rare to see American films executed with such patience.
We’ve all grown so collectively numb to the entertainment we consume that frenetic bloodshed and overplotted nonsense seems to be the only option that makes sense to some people. How else to explain the popularity of something like HBO’s Westworld or movies like the Marvel comics smash Deadpool? And yet, in Moonlight, there is a wholeness– a sense of life lived, loves lost and secrets finally revealed — that takes on a scope larger than cinema, larger than art, larger than the act of creating a fiction. It is a film made up of moments — some devastating, some utterly ordinary, and some that are surreal in their roundabout beauty — whose cumulative effect feels akin to the sun peeking through sleet-grey storm clouds, casting light into an ashen-grey limbo. Moonlight is the movie of 2016, and the movie that we as a people need right now.
Maybe I sound like I’m getting carried away with myself. Maybe I am. There was certainly no reason to think Moonlight would be this kind of cinematic game-changer, at least not off the basis of Jenkins’ first film: a small-scale talkfest called Medicine for Melancholy. That film, starring former Daily Show correspondent Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins, was about two hip young African-American kids who fall into bed together one night in that historically white city of San Francisco, wake up with no memories of the events that transpired and are thusly compelled to embark on a hungover walk through a city that they no longer recognize… and one that may very well no longer recognize them.
Medicine was a film of modest pleasures: a wry, funny walk-and-talk in the vein of Before Sunrise or 2 Days in Paris. It was bittersweet and and fitfully compelling, but there seemed to be hints of a darker, more lyrical and complex film lurking in the character’s digressive conversations about love, sex and gentrification. With Moonlight, Jenkins has taken what was intriguing about his first film and made a quantum leap forward in terms of quality, confidence and technique. It took the director eight years to make his proper follow-up, but having now seen the film, it feels safe to say the wait was worth it: Moonlight is a film that is seismic in its emotional impact, and one that haunts you like a ghost for days after your first viewing.
Moonlight, as I said earlier, is the story of Chiron. Chiron is a deeply closeted homosexual black man whom we come to know at three very different points in his life. When we first meet him, he’s running at a blistering speed through the bombed-out, blighted streets of his Miami neighborhood, a mob of taunting bullies hot on his tail. The boy takes refuge in an old, broken-down dope house, not long after which he is discovered by a tall, charismatic man who calls himself Juan, and is played superbly by Luke Cage’s very own Cottonmouth, Mahershala Ali. We come to discover that Juan sells crack-cocaine, but true to the surprising nature of Jenkins’ story, he’s far from a bad man. A lesser film would have turned Juan into a one-note villain: perhaps he’d take young Chiron under his wing, only to teach the kid how to sell product or beat up other youngin’s on the street. Blessedly, Moonlight is not that kind of film.
Instead, Juan welcomes Chiron — whom the other kids derisively call “Little” — into his home with open arms. He teaches the little guy how to swim and how to assert himself in the world. Even Juan’s lovely girlfriend, played by singer Janelle Monae, cooks for Chiron and lets him sleep over when things get too heated at home. Chiron’s mother is a drug addict; one who steadily gets her supply from Juan, not that the movie makes a huge deal out of this complication. In one devastating scene, Chiron asks the older man what a faggot is, and how he knows if he might be one. Juan’s response, when it comes, is one of the most beautifully articulated and thoughtful rejoinders to that deplorable word that I myself have ever heard. Along the way, the older man gives Chiron the most valuable piece of advice he’ll hear in his young life: “at some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
Things hardly improve for Chiron in his teenage years. Instead, he is faced with more abuse, more threats, more violence, all while his mother swirls down the sinkhole of addiction and self-loathing. At one point, he shares a romantic moment on the beach with his only friend, Kevin, under the pale glow of a teasing moon. There is no making sense of this moment — least of all for Kevin and Chiron, both of whom are too young and prideful to understand their conflicting urges and what they might mean. As an audience, we know it is a moment that will go on to color the rest of their lives.
When we meet Chiron as an adult, he goes by the name “Black” — the nickname Kevin playfully bestowed to him in his teenage years. As a grown man, Black embodies the textbook composite of toxic masculinity, hiding behind mountains of muscle and a scowl that glimmers through a gangster grill. Black, ehr, Chiron has been keeping himself hidden from the world, and certainly hidden from himself himself. He has actively shut anything that could possibly be considered “gay” or “soft” out of his personality and when we first see him, he hardly seems like the scrawny, sensitive kid we meet in the movie’s opening moments. All of this leads to Chiron’s reunion with Kevin, played as an adult by The Knick’s Andre Holland. Kevin now works as a server at a Cuban restaurant and, unlike Chiron, seems relatively well adjusted, even if his life appears to be a simple one. Wouldn’t you know, he’s even settled down with a girlfriend.
The unbearably and tender sad final scenes between Chiron and the only man who has ever touched him are the emotional foundation of Moonlight itself and, in a way; every previous scene in the film is building towards this extended sequence. Even Chiron himself is not totally sure why he’s reached out to Kevin after all these years after that one fateful night on the beach. Indeed, the actor playing Black in these scenes — an ex-athlete of astonishing expressiveness named Trevante Rhodes, who will next be seen in Westworld and Terrence Malick’s upcoming Weightless — channels a palpable sense of being in the turbulent grip of forces well beyond his understanding. Meanwhile, Andre Holland, who all but walked away with his scenes in Steven Soderbergh’s cutting-edge medical procedural, plays the role of Kevin with sober, compassionate élan. He seems to understand why Chiron has wanted to hide from the world, but the actor’s knowing stares and delicate facial reactions indicate that he clearly wishes that his friend didn’t have to resort to this.
While Moonlight is ultimately a film about Chiron and Kevin, the women give equally impressive turns. Actress Naomie Harris is so fearsomely convincing as Chiron’s hopeless mother that I was genuinely shocked to hear her posh British accent when she spoke about the film at the post-screening Q&A. Equally impressive is Monae, who plays Juan’s girlfriend not as some clichéd, temperamental domestic queen — the likes of which you might see in a Lee Daniels film — but rather as a lovely, understanding women who, in spite of her best intentions, can’t quite see through to Chiron’s buried heart of darkness. She’s the closest thing to a true maternal figure that the boy has: a tragedy that’s made all the more apparent by the ephemeral nature of their interactions with each other.
Moonlight is, above all, a formal triumph: a symphony of brilliant directing, cutting-edge sound design and brave, first-rate performances. Though the film might be too bracingly personal for some, there is no disputing its technical bonafides. Moonlight’s use of music is also, without question, the most innovative of the year. Jenkins’ film re-contextualizes old rhythm and blues numbers that have found their way into today’s hip-hop samples and gives them bracing new life. The film opens with a certain Boris Gardiner tune that was, just this year, flipped into the mournful sample that kicks off Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp A Butterfly,” another vital work of art about what it’s like to be black in 2016 America. Later, the filmmakers make scintillating use of Aretha Franklin’s classic “One Step Ahead,” which beat junkies will recognize as the basis for Mos Def’s “Ms. Fat Booty”. There is also Mozart, somehow, as well as a chopped and screwed version of Jidenna’s marauding radio-rap hit “Classic Man,” one that slows the singer’s voice down to an narcotic alien crawl crawl and exposes the song’s lyrics about traditional masculinity as being hollow in an altered context. In moments like this, Jenkins is bridging the gap between the vast and sprawling diaspora of black music: drawing the connective thread of pain and loss that binds spirituals, Motown, the blues and trap music. It’s an incredible feat to witness.
We are living in a terrifying time. The dumpster fire of demagoguery that is Donald Trump’s political campaign has made it somehow okay for vindictive white folks to voice their racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic opinions with impunity, all under the guise of supposedly “telling it like it is”. As a result, we are more divided and fractured as a nation than we have ever been. I do not mean to suggest that Moonlight is a film that will eradicate racism and hatred, or make us forget that Donald Trump’s pathetic bid to be President is an actual, day-to-day threat to democracy. Moonlight, instead, is a reminder of what we as people are capable of. It is a reminder to be always be empathetic, to always be kind, and walking out of the theater, your heart feels richer for having exposed yourself to the experience.
I’m not going say “we are Chiron, and Chiron is us” — that would be disingenuous and offensive to the legions of queer-identifying and African-American citizens for whom this film may act as a kind of lightning rod. What I am saying is there is poetry here. There is unconceivable beauty in this film: in the world it depicts, and the world it reflects as well. And there is light, like the moonlight that illuminates the first tryst of Chiron and Kevin, or the sun speckles that dance off the water where Chiron receives his first swimming lesson and unofficial baptism. Here, there is truth. And isn’t that why we go to the movies in the first place? Grade: A.