Moonlight ★★★★★

Not only is Moonlight a take on fresh subject matter (in mainstream cinema terms), it's a fresh take on fresh subject matter. We open on a hard-edged, fluid long take in which the life of Juan seems to be unfolding. We really sink our teeth into the way time unfolds for him, the neighborhood unfolds for him. Little is said in this movie in order for things to be taken in and understood, and we always catch it because we've been made to listen. The next scene is a little boy hiding from bullies in an abandoned crack den. We're plucked away completely from the previous circumstances and kept in the dark with this scared kid. Until Juan busts the board off the window frame. And so begins the story of Chiron, a kid who, we will learn, everything is stacked against.

Deceptively introducing us to the main character in that way is such an inspired, brilliant stroke because we're given a vehicle to view him curiously from the perspectives of other characters before bleeding into his. The movie surprises you, but if you're letting it truly wash over you, you will see it all coming from around the corner, and you will feel it right along with him. That would never work if the movie were handled any less gently than it is.

There is a constant sense of invisible foreshadowing by Barry Jenkins. He entrenches us fully in Chiron's world to the point where the slightest change in mood, the mere question of why two characters would talk, the careful choice of what's in and out of frame, all signals us to what is about to happen at various cathartic points. The second time Juan visits his corner, the steadicam fluidity is noticeably missing; we're going handheld, because something's up. Jenkins' goal is not suspense. He wants us to be as emotionally present for his character as possible.

There is another big challenge, and also a strange power, in filming a character study in which the main character is played for virtually equal amounts of time by three equally indelible actors. The effect is stunning but simple: He's never truly himself. By the end, we've seen the transformations of a character who has never been comfortable in his own skin, and maybe never will. These stages of his young life are even demarcated by the names by which he is known: Little, Chiron and Black. He's so completely entrenched in his insulated cultural expectations that he may never be free.

This, incidentally, also happens to be an ingenious device for multiplying the plum opportunities for up-and-coming black actors. Hollywood was never going to consider Ashton Sanders of Trevante Rhodes for anything as demanding or memorable as what they bring here. Its release during the fateful fall of 2016 is, in fact, perfect timing for an all-black film, let alone an all-black film about a disenfranchised, grossly misunderstood demographic of poverty-stricken and working-class people stuck in a cultural and socioeconomic trap.

I'm thrilled that the largely white critical establishment has absorbed this film so readily. See, studios? You see what happens when we take chances on filmmakers from different backgrounds? When we explore stories about people we don't see enough? See how much we can feel as though we better understanding and empathize when seeing them in dramatic works and in entertainment, without compromise, and without some heroic white puppet “standing up” for anybody? And after all this, we're talking about a story that's really so simple. Because it distills exactly why we've always truly gone to the movies: to come closer to people and care about things outside of ourselves.

Block or Report