Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight is a masterpiece. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt confident or un-ironically self-aware enough before to write this. Ordinarily, the contrarian inside me would be alienated by the fact that Moonlight has absurdly high scores on the aggregator sites; i.e., all those other lazy-ass film writers seem to love it, so there’s got to be something they’re not seeing. But fuck it, I can’t think of another word that really does it justice. And it’s not just because I can’t remember the last time I watched a movie without being able to pick a single nit about elements like shot angles, camera movements, lighting, line deliveries, story points, character complexities, etc. And yeah, maybe I’m a little biased going into it — for the three or four readers out there who remember my review last year of The Strongest Man — this Miami-born-and-raised writer has spent a lot of time thinking about the city’s depiction on film.
From this standpoint, the brilliance of Moonlight lies in how the film captures Miami’s essential qualities while also transcending geography by reaching for the deeply human and affecting. Set in Liberty City, a place known to explicit rap aficionados as the home of Uncle Luke, the film portrays a part of the city ordinarily avoided by most tourists and many locals. There’s a beautiful quality here that’s conveyed by Jenkins and his cinematographer, such as the tropical pastel colors that once drew Michael Mann’s attention, but with a lived-in reality and earthiness that refuses to gloss over the glaring imperfections. In fact, through two extraordinary scenes set at the public beaches, the film expresses the paradox and promise of Miami: paradise is always right there, yet somehow out of reach for the majority of denizens. Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise given the talent behind the story. Not only is Jenkins a Miami native, but the film is also adapted from an unproduced play by fellow Miamian and MacArthur fellow Tarell McCraney.
The film’s narrative structure reflects its roots as a theatrical production. Broken into three acts, Moonlight rejects the traditional beginning, middle, and end in favor of showing scenes from the main character’s life at different ages. Weirdly, it’s a dramatic format closest in spirit to Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs, though the two films couldn’t be any more worlds apart (and I liked Steve Jobs). In each phase, the main character is played by a different actor with a different name: as a young boy called Little (Alex R. Hibbert), a teenager who takes his given name Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and a young man named Black (Trevante Rhodes). Each part revolves around Chiron’s relationships to a few of the men in his life — Juan (Mahersha Ali), a drug dealer/father figure, and Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland) — and his drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris). Each of the performances — from the kids to the grown-ass men to the women who occupy a story mainly about what it means to become a man — is nuanced, balancing the serious emotional moments with the ordinary human levity we expect from complicated individuals. The performances that Jenkins is able to inspire is incredible, considering the different ages and backgrounds from which he drew this cast; for example, I was vaguely aware that Janelle Monáe is a talented performer, but her voice acting work in Rio 2 didn’t prepare me for what she was able to do with a single look in this film.
Ultimately, it’s what Jenkins is able to do with simple visual images and quiet moments that make this such an extraordinary work. There are brilliant cues that call back to earlier scenes both subtly and effectively, such as a pot of boiling water, a crown on the dashboard of a car, the whirling movements of a camera. There are also silences that hit harder than the occasional bursts of violence: a character shouting who can’t be heard; two men exchanging glances, unsure of what to say to one another; the already iconic shot of Juan holding Little as he swims in the ocean; and the film’s beautifully painted final image of young Little looking directly into the camera against the beach at night. It’s cliché to say something will haunt your dreams, but I recently woke up in the middle of the night still thinking about scenes from Moonlight, so take that for what it’s worth. I haven’t even said close to everything I want to say about this movie. I’m not sure I ever could.