Let’s just get this out of the way: Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, is nothing short of stunning; an achievement on both aesthetic and emotional levels. It is one of the strongest films of the year.
The film follows the story of Chiron, whose nicknames provide titles for the film’s three acts, each one casting different actors to play the central ensemble at various points in their lives. Culminating in the understated, meditative final act, “Black,” the transformation we witness Chiron undergo is a revelation.
The three actors who play Chiron are not kindred spirits, they are the same spirit. Each performance is imbued with a quiet, raw authenticity that feels unique to the character. All the actors in this film deserve praise. Mahershala Ali and R&B crooner Janelle Monae make excellent, if unlikely, parental figures, while Chiron’s real mother, played by Naomie Harris, is characterized by her undercut, sideways glances towards other characters.
Moonlight’s biggest weakness might be its lack of narrative originality. Some plot beats are anticipated, like the revelation of one character’s death after an act break, though certainly not all. Even then, the way that this story is delivered justifies the price of admission; a shot that lets linger an image of Chiron’s hand digging into the sand in a fit of passion, for example, or a baptismal-esque swimming lesson between father figure Juan and a young Chiron that haunts the mind for the rest of the film’s duration.
This is a film that ambles and meditates. With a camera that moves seemingly at its own whim, every shot showcases beautiful aesthetic framing and detailing. The heavy saturation of colors and careful use of chiaroscuro bring out the vibrancy of the Miami setting while giving the emotional content of the film a beautiful backdrop against which it is juxtaposed.
Also worth mentioning is the film’s sound design, which is often used to isolate and interrogate Chiron; the way that the score overwhelms the film’s diegetic sound footsteps, breathing, and dialogue often punctuates feelings of anxiety to great effect. When combined with the cinematography, the effect is stunning; a point of view shot as Chiron runs home with the discordance of strings crafts a feeling only comparable to other moments in the film.
Nicholas Brittel’s score, meanwhile, contextualizes itself within the symphonic tradition, while the song that kicks the film off is the same song that Kendrick Lamar samples on the opening track of To Pimp a Butterfly. This is one of many ways that Moonlight finds itself in an intertextual conversation with other recent works grappling with similar core questions.
Moonlight’s thematic content interrogates questions of masculinity, blackness and sexuality. The film is obsessed with the concept of influence, and will certainly leave a lasting mark on the viewer.
It poses questions, offers answers and enlightens. Jenkins’ work is the rare film that will be remembered, written about, and canonized for content both thematic and formal, emotional and aesthetic for years to come. Moonlight is a revelation, a meditation and a wonder.