Moonlight begins with a beautiful steadicam shot that literally revolves around a denied drug deal. One of the dealers involved, Juan (Mahershala Ali), gets cut off by a child being chased by bullies. Chiron, or “Little” (Alex Hibbert), finds comfort in Juan as a father figure that he does not have elsewhere in his life.
Little, quiet though he is, shows a conflicted desire to fit into the hyper-masculine role that is expected of him. Hibbert’s affecting performance in this opening act is told in glances that are nuanced beyond the young actor’s years.
Ali, whose uprising career is well-deserved, pulls out a career high performance as the mentor figure. His role in the narrative is simple, but his performance is far more complex. There is something quietly heartbreaking about his reserved paternalism.
Barry Jenkins directs actors into transformative roles. Janelle Monae and Naomie Harris disappear into their characters, the latter shedding an English accent to play Chiron’s mother in a heart-wrenching turn.
Moonlight is bildungsroman on an emotionally epic scale. Chiron’s journey, told in fragments over time with three separate actors filling the role, is thematically rich. The struggle to adhere to sexuality, masculinity, and the lack of maternal nurturing make for a complex of emotions that illuminate the human condition in full blue.
A lingering camera follows Chiron through his maturation, either observing from a curious distance or uncomfortably closing in on his space. Focus plays on what we are privileged to in Chiron’s head. And the chunk sound of doors opening make one pivotal scene heavy with pulse-pounding intensity.
All three actors portraying Chiron (Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) are astounding, working together to create the tapestry of a human being suppressed by various external forces, whose shifting identity holds the constant of a marked stoicism.
The story of the film feels familiar. The coming-of-age tradition is apparent. At times, the fragmentation of the narrative leaves gaps too large to justify, our protagonist lost in the ebbs and flows of time in ways that are hard to see on-screen. But Moonlight is brimming with powerful emotions, both expressed and repressed. Jenkins brings a level of style and sophistication to what could have been an otherwise conventional narrative, and the cast adds a current of realism that is rare for Hollywood.
Distilling Moonlight to one word is an easy task: Must-see.
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)