Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a quiet masterpiece, filled with beautiful craft and incredible acting, creating a romantic slice of life that never lets go.
Moonlight takes place in three parts, covering three important moments, at three different points in a young man’s life. “Little”/Chiron/”Black” are the names of Moonlight’s acts and the names of our lead character, played by three brilliant actors; Alex Hibbert/Ashton Sanders/Trevante Rhodes. There are a couple constants in the 15 year story of Chiron, Kevin and his Mother, but a couple of other major influences play a role in the first two parts. Juan is trying to fill a fatherly hole in Chiron’s life and Terrel unknowingly sets Chiron on a path that no one saw coming. Chiron’s path takes him through drugs, violence and poverty, but Moonlight is about his romantic discoveries and trying to finally become the man he knows he wants to be.
Jenkins’ wrote and directed the film, and adaptation of the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and you can feel his control over every scene. The way he uses the camera, seemingly switching between single takes and close-ups, help him tell his entire emotional arc of his story. The single takes build tension as he beautifully tracks all around the characters and scene, landing on the perfect shot, while the close-ups let the actors show off subtle nuance that will break you.
Trevante Rhodes, who plays the eldest Chiron, “Black”, might benefit the most from those close-ups, as he wraps up his younger selves’ performances, as well as Mahershala Ali’s Juan, into an incredibly nuanced performance that changes with each look. Rhodes puts on the hard act one second and delivers the exact look Chiron had when put back in a situation that takes him back to his childhood. It’s incredible. His younger selves shouldn’t be short changed either. Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders are also both quite excellent, with Hibbert actually selling the quiet type, while Sanders seethes with teenage angst just under the surface, until it isn’t. Sanders just wears so much emotion on his face and behind his eyes, he’s about as good as Rhodes.
The aforementioned Mahershala Ali is also a contender for best performance of the film as the fatherly Juan who can’t quite make peace with his business and what it’s done to Chiron’s life. The way Ali calls him “Little”, the softness and patience he shows in their first encounter, how he carries himself on the corner, Ali shows so much range with just a glance at times. Naomie Harris is practically unrecognizable as Chiron’s mother, Paula, and she puts the pedal to the metal and never lets up. Yes, she’s playing an addicted mother, but she avoids cliche as she bounces between manic and sincere with her son throughout the years. André Holland plays the oldest version of Kevin and is magnetic on the screen. He’s so charming and alive while doing most of the talking in part three, but he and Rhodes have crazy chemistry as the two size each other up after ten years apart. Jaden Piner and Jharrel Jerome round out the excellent cast, playing the younger versions of Kevin, and they do a great job of laying the charming groundwork for Holland to knock out of the park in act three. Oh, and Janelle Monáe pops up in a couple of scenes as Ali’s wife/lover and is one of the warmest and kindest lights in Chiron’s life. Monáe hasn’t done much acting, but her brief turn here is a strong start.
Moonlight is a film that you can keep heaping praise upon, but you’re best off just going and experiencing this beautiful film. The cast might be the best ensemble of the year, Barry Jenkins is a sight to behold, and the film makes up for any minor missteps along the way. The central incident of part two might play as a bit contrived, but the payoff is one of the most exhilarating moments of the year, which makes it worth it. See Moonlight, it’s one of the year’s best.