"At some point you gotta decide for yourself who you're gonna be."
I’ve recently noticed that the film industry seems to think that personal filmmaking and innovative styles cannot exist in unison. Maybe it is just me but I often find that numerous films that attempt to be innovative on their shooting style, method of filming or use of technology ultimately abandon the idea that they could resonate with their audiences. I’ve also seen a lot of these in 2016, but there have been a few exceptions and ‘Moonlight’ by Barry Jenkins is one of them.
A young man named Chiron deals with his dysfunctional home life and comes of age in Miami during the "War on Drugs" era. The story of his struggle to find himself is told across three defining chapters in his life, childhood (Alex Hibbert), teenage years (Ashton Sanders) and adulthood (Trevante Rhodes) as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love while grappling with his own sexuality.
When you get down to it, most stories are about taking a character and making them ask themselves “Who am I?”, regardless of genre or style, most compelling stories have this element. I can’t think of any other film of 2016 that analyses that question as thoroughly as ‘Moonlight’ does. It puts you into the mind set and perspective of its main character and through just three short glimpses into his life, makes you intimately familiar with his whole existence. It is a film that speaks volumes about how as human beings we can be defined by our environments and experiences. It succeeds in being poetically expressionistic but also brutally grounded in the real world. It is vast on what it has to say about human behaviour and life itself, but also intricately focussed on its main character.
Many will point to the films structure as one of its finest attributes, and it is. The way Jenkins screenplay weaves each chapter into one another is resonant and expertly crafted, They are seamlessly stitched together to paint a striking portrait of a young man’s life in such a way that by the time the third chapter rolls around and we see Chiron as a fully-fledged adult, it feels as if we are greeting an old friend whom we have not seen for many years. Details of his life in between may be unknown to us and how he got here exactly is somewhat shady but he is still very much the same person. While I feared that I would long to know what occurred in between each section, Jenkins’ script is so evocative in what it does tell you that I never felt like I had missed out on a more interesting story.
From the first few scenes the script manages to skilfully subvert our expectations, and continues to do so throughout the film. Layer upon layer is built up to a point where we can understand Chiron’s motivations and influences as his life continues to evolve. As he discovers more about who he is and who everyone around him is, we see the ways in which he has been influence resurface. The few connections he makes in his confused and isolated childhood have tenfold the influence on his adult years. But Jenkins does all of this without ever resorting to clichés, heavy exposition or obvious pandering that it almost sneaks up on you. It progresses naturally and fluidly, I never felt as if I had been forced along on this journey. The camerawork further draws you into the film, sometimes creating moments so intimate that you’re afraid to breathe and risk interrupting it.
The camerawork in question mostly contains a very shallow depth of feel which only creates a more intimate environment. The camera moves ostentatiously to give ‘Moonlight’ such a sense of energy even in its quitter moments. It is not the kind of film a perfectionist would make, but rather a director who wanted to create something deeply personal and hugely important. The magnificent cinematography of James Laxton is also very desirable. His dreamlike tour through this life is gorgeously coloured and displays a wide range of visual treats that accurately reflect Chiron’s state of mind, making his plight all the more resonant.
Of course all of this would be irrelevant if the three actors portraying Chiron were not up to scratch. But each defining chapter is underpinned with a subtly brilliant performance that, like the film’s structure, remain distinct from one another but clearly possess enough connective tissue to unite them. Despite having very little dialogue Hibbert is able to make what goes unsaid the most powerful factor of all in his performance. A child so clearly unable to comprehend the world around him as well as himself, desperately seeking some kind of connection or understanding. Sanders focusses much more on Chiron’s own conflict within himself as well as his sheer isolation that hangs over him at all times. As cathartic as the final moments of this chapter are they are also tinged with tragedy and the script, direction and acting make that very clear. Upon reaching the last chapter Rhodes also delivers perfectly, bringing a performance that is not an imitation of the two before it but one clearly built on emotional growth and development, a man whose experiences have taught him that he needs to shield himself from the unforgiving world around him but also is still seeking that faint connection he had so many years ago.
The supporting cast are also excellent with two particular stand outs being Mahershala Ali and Naomi Harris playing Juan and Paula. Both playing huge influences in how Chiron sees the world and both an ever present figure in is life, either physically or spiritually. Harris portrays Chiron’s unstable mother with such ferocity and tragedy that it’s almost heart breaking to watch their relationship deteriorate, especially given that her state owes itself to the drugs she is using, sold to her by Juan the local drug dealer, who happens to be the only positive influence in Chiron’s childhood. Whether or not someone could label a father like relationship with a drug dealer positive is doubtful, but Juan is the first person to make Chiron comfortable with who he is, teaching him to embrace his own identity and live his life, while providing Paula with the tools to ruin hers. It’s one of many complex and bittersweet developments that are peppered throughout Jenkins screenplay and they are all stunningly evocative and moving.
Unique in its construction, style and subject matter while also boasting several terrific performances drawing an intimately moving character study. ‘Moonlight’ is a masterful marvel.