This film was captivating from the first scene to the last. Barry Jenkins’ shooting style goes beyond merely engaging and fully submerges the viewer into the story. Jenkins’ style is so personal to the point of being unnerving at times. We find ourselves losing our footing with frenzied arc shots that track actors with multiple rotations. The viewer is unavoidably engaged in empathy and compassion with a series of extreme closeup shots that are so close to the action you can’t help but feel right there in the moment. These shots compliment the story and the performances exceptionally.
The story follows the life of Chiron and is played by 3 actors, from childhood, through high school, and into adulthood. Chiron’s character is held true and consistent through each act of the film. The most important aspect that is maintained by each actor is Chiron’s quiet disposition and the way that he does not emit his emotion vocally, but entirely through his facial expressions. Juan, played by Mahershala Ali, has a conflicting role in Chiron’s life. Being both an unlikely father figure and the supplier of Chiron’s mother’s habit, Juan is the catalyst in Chiron’s survival. While Ali’s performance stands out, each performance in this film is authentic and impassioned.
Moonlight is a steady emotional ride that seeks to find safety and security in life. The reoccurring line in the film, “Who is you?”, is at the root of the film’s message. Putting up a front can help protect yourself from danger, while you are adapting and growing. However, it can also isolate you and inhibit one from from flourishing. Are you being your true self?
There is an interesting balance between red and blue throughout the film. Teresa and Juan embody everything blue, from Juan’s nickname, blue, to the color of the clothes and decor. The tranquility and the serenity that comes along with the color blue as well as their positive and influential presence on his life, is the only thing he has going for him. In contrast, Paula embodies everything negative, including: abandonment, shame, drugs, and isolation. Periodically we see references of the color red in her presence. We see him pick a blue and white shirt straddled in between a blue and red one, we see him in Juan and Teresa’s house where they are painting over their red walls with blue paint, and so on and so on.
Each life stage transition is placed perfectly and there is a lot of attention to detail during the transition. The timing of the transition places us in an unknown temporal state. The audience is unsure of the exact history or state of affairs during the leap in time. At the same time we immediately know that the first person we see is Chiron. One way that we know this, is that the first thing he does is stick his tongue out. Through both transitions, form segment 1 – 2 and segment 2 – 3, we see Chiron stick his tongue out the same way that Juan stuck out his tongue. It is already clear that Juan functions as his father figure and this little touch just brings that point home.
That attention to detail is also pervasive throughout the film. Moonlight is a well thought out piece of work that has meaning in every scene. One great example is the scene where Chiron is washing his face from the beating from Kevin. It is clear that both the film and Chiron are transitioning and taking a divergent step from the established pacing. The following scene where Chiron “toughens” up and throws a chair at Terrel, played by Patrick Decile. This transition places him in the next segment as well as progresses him down a road that possibly would not have happened if Terrel’s instigation had not taken place. Thus making a larger statement towards the way prison creates criminals instead of “curing” them.
This also lead in to the incredible pacing throughout Moonlight. The way that each story line unfolds and each stage of Chiron is played out, progresses in a fluid and natural manner. The story never feels slow and the highlighted memorable moments of his life perfectly encapsulate his journey.
The way that Jenkins uses handheld cameras throughout the film provides a raw feel that makes Moonlight stick to you like glue.
Another interesting facet of the plot that adds to the depth is the main characters name, Chiron. Chiron is another name for a centaur and they are also connected with liminal beings. Per Wikipedia, Liminal beings are those that cannot easily be placed into a single category of existence. This speaks volumes to Chiron’s story in Moonlight and the struggle he goes through as he finds his identity. Even by the end of the movie we get no closure in the sense of him realizing his place and comfort in the world. Moonlight is the story of his search for identity and understanding and the truth of the matter is that we do not always find that truth. We can work towards that truth, but that does not mean that it will come.
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Cinematography: James Laxton
Screenplay by: Barry Jenkins
Music by: Nicholas Britell
Starring: Mahershala Ali, Alex R. Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes
Runtime: 1h 51m
Distributed by: A24