Moonlight – Film Review
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris
Review by David Turpin
Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ second feature, after 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, Moonlight is drawn from In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, a piece by the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is perhaps best known for his trilogy The Brother/Sister Plays. Jenkins’ film unfolds in three titled chapters, “Little”, “Chiron”, and “Black”, each of which covers a different phase in the life of a young man, played by Alex R. Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as an adolescent, and Trevante Rhodes as an adult. The result is a remarkably cool-surfaced exploration of a number of incendiary issues surrounding race and sexuality in contemporary America. That the film is ultimately more concerned with using issues of sexuality to access broader themes of isolation and estrangement may come as a disappointment to some, but there’s little doubt that Jenkins has created something quietly revolutionary on his own terms.
Chiron – who is known as “Little” in childhood, and “Black” in hardened adulthood – is less a protagonist than a subject, or centre, for the film, given how much Jenkins is interested not in what he does, but in what he does not do. As a withdrawn and vulnerable child, he is taken under the wing of local drug dealer Juan (Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (an exquisite turn by the singer Janelle Monáe). Juan and Teresa offer Chiron a modicum of security not provided by his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) – a cruel irony given that it is Juan who supplies her with the crack cocaine upon which she is dependent. Later, Chiron will emerge from a traumatic adolescence to become part of the same cycle of criminality – although a possible alternative path is suggested by his tentative, incremental relationship with his friend Kevin (played by Jaden Piner as a child, Jharrel Jerone as an adolescent, and André Holland as an adult).
Given that the film covers a long span of time, it inevitably distils events into a series of alternating highs and lows – particularly for its supporting characters. Harris, in particular, has to play a series of high-intensity scenes with little connective respite. That the film never devolves into melodrama is a testament to the skill of the cast, as much as to Jenkins’ command of the material. Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes are particularly strong – much of the poignancy of the film deriving from the way in which their successive performances as Chiron seem radically different from one another, while being recognisably the same on a register that has been repressed to near a subterranean level.
The cinematography, by James Laxton, is remarkable for its fluidity and intimacy. There is a palpable sense of physicality to Moonlight, despite the fact that – for a film at least partially concerned with sexuality – it displays little to no interest in the erotic. Unlike Wong Kar-wai, whose In the Mood for Love (2000) is an aesthetic touchstone here, Jenkins is less interested in the sensuality of repressed desire than he is in the psychological burden of that repression. For that reason, two stylised dream sequences stand out as rare missteps in the film’s aesthetic – registering as somehow too obvious and too obtuse at the same time. That Moonlight comes with an all-but impeccable surface is reason enough to see it. Ultimately, however, its power derives from the deep well of humanity that its director and, especially, its performers find beneath that surface.