Moonlight is bravura filmmaking and storytelling, a thrillingly cinematic exploration of identity, sexuality, and repressed desires. From the startling and engrossing opening Steadicam shot all the way until the absolutely perfect final image, writer/director Barry Jenkins crafts a narrative, from an original story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, which feels personal, honest, tragic, and uniquely uplifting. This film has been rapturously received by critics, and rightfully so, as it’s an important piece of work at a very important time in society, and while focusing on something specific and largely absent from movie screens in wide exposure (the black gay experience), its themes are universal and will hit hard for many people, regardless of race or sexual orientation. Progressive, introspective, and directed with extreme care by Jenkins, Moonlight is the type of film that will be seen as a rallying cry for some, and deserves to find the widest possible audience, as its message is one that feels authentic and enormously human. James Laxton’s bold and beautiful widescreen cinematography absolutely simmers with visual possibilities, with Jenkins totally embracing aesthetic artifice without projecting a self-conscious sense of false importance; the emotional power of the material matches the expressionistic shooting style so as a result, there’s a harmonious quality to the entire piece.
The film revolves around a young man named Chiron who has been dealing with an extremely dysfunctional home life (his mom is an addict and dad is absent), living in the rougher parts of Miami and just trying to get through each day. The narrative has been broken into thirds, with each chapter highlighting a particular moment in time (middle-school, teen-years, and manhood), while painting a portrait of a changing world and the various issues that a gay black man would face while living in the ghetto. The cast is sensational from top to bottom, with Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali all delivering richly drawn portraits which helps to create an organic flow to the time-jumping story. Rhodes, in particular, is spellbinding in his ability to project bottled up feelings and intense vulnerability, with his buff physique masking his warm and open heat at his center. Holland, so incredible on the Cinemax series The Knick, shows up in the final act and steals all of his scenes with a quiet sense of melancholy and grace. And I love how Jenkins consistently subverted expectations all throughout, starting with the tense opening bit, showing characters to be more than meets the eye on more than one occasion, and allowing the audience to fill in the blanks during some key sexual moments which make them all the more powerful. Leave it to go-to-indie distributor A24 to be the ones to get this earth-shaker out there.