There are few films that hit you between the eyes and are engrossing from start to finish, but it’s an even more special when it’s an independent film on a shoe string budget that packs such a wallop. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins and based on MacArthur Fellow (and co-screenwriter) Tarell Alvin McCraney’s autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue is one of those films. Moonlight is about Chiron, an African-American boy struggling with his sexuality while growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood. The film follows Chiron through three seminal stages of his life, beginning as a young and shy adolescent who seems to be the only one around him who doesn’t fully recognize his own homosexuality. As his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) spirals into drug addiction, Chiron finds an unlikely mentor in Juan, (Mahershala Ali) a neighborhood drug dealer who develops a strong paternal bond with Chiron along with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae).
As Chiron grows into his teen years, his home life becomes more unbearable as his mother is now in full-on addict mode and his school life is as traumatic as always due to bullies. He finds solace in a long-time friendship Kevin that becomes more until a terrible betrayal that sends him reeling into adulthood, where Chiron is now following in Juan’s footsteps as a drug dealer, but despite his pumped up physique and grills, he’s still the same quiet and introspective person he always was, searching for himself.
For such a small film, Moonlight is an absolute monster. Despite (or perhaps because of) its relatively limited dialogue – I’m not sure Chiron says more than 100 words throughout the entire film – I found myself leaning in and becoming immersed in what was happening on the screen. I saw Moonlight and Jackie on the same day and though you could not have two more different films, there are some striking similarities that make both films amazing. So much of the film – particularly the first two segments – is shot from behind Chiron, which makes the audience experience things with him. One would think that this could distance the audience from its protagonist but it in fact draws you nearer. Like Jackie, I was also struck by the beautiful score by Nicholas Britell which, where it not for being nominated against La La Land would have taken the prize any other year.
While there are a few recognizable actors in Moonlight there are no “stars”, yet viewing the cast as a whole I would consider it to be one of the best in recent memory. Mahershala Ali (who won the Oscar for his role) in particular made such a mark in such a small amount of screen time, and all three actors who portrayed Chiron were outstanding and gave achingly natural performances. Honestly, I don’t even know how to begin to praise director Barry Jenkins for his work other than to call his work an utter masterpiece. He’s so young, and Moonlight is only his second feature film (after Medicine for Melancholy, which has been on my watch list for a couple of years now and has moved up with a bullet now) so I’m really excited to see what he does next.
It’s so hard to describe why Moonlight had such an impact, but I can tell you that I felt it viscerally from start to finish. While I was emotional from time to time during the film I was more rapt than anything; it was the fastest 1:50 minutes of film I can recall in recent memory. However the closing shot of the film – seemingly innocent enough when you see it in the trailer – is the perfect cap to what you realize was a truly special and incredibly emotional experience that the floodgates opened and I couldn’t stop ugly crying for about ten minutes. My boyfriend Chris was snuffling right along next to me and thankfully broke the tension at the end of the credits with, “Okay, are we going to be able to deal with the public at this point?” We managed to keep it together, but Moonlight has stayed with me in the two months since I saw it, and is no danger of being forgotten any time soon.