A24's Moonlight may appear tailor-designed to combat last year's OscarSoWhite criticism on the surface, but it really is so much more than that: nuanced and controlled, it is a startling and tender character study on a too-rarely depicted demographic, more than deserving of its critical acclaim and countless accolades. Based on the autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCarney that serves the foundation for Barry Jenkins' screenplay, Moonlight is considered one of the front-runners in the Oscar race (arguably neck-and-neck with Hollywood love-letter La La Land), scooping up eight nominations at the forthcoming Academy Awards, with nods for Director and Adapted Screenplay for Jenkin and Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali. How brightly does moonlight shine, or does it simply get lost in the shadows?
Moonlight concerns and chronicles the life of Chiron, a black boy becoming a man living in an impoverished Miami neighbourhood, struggling with acceptance, his sexuality, his emotionally-abusive mother and bullies. The film follows three distinct, important stages in his life, usually covering just a few days at each time; we begin with him as a vulnerable, withdrawn child nicknamed "Little" (Alex Hibbert); as an introverted teenager simply called "Chiron" (Ashton Sanders); and as an adult trying to find his place in the world, going by the name "Black" (Trevante Rhodes). It's a very structured three-act narrative concerning a journey of self-discovery and self-protection, only loosely-connected by Chiron at the very heart of it all; characters die in-between acts, new people come into his life and the audience are almost left to piece together the unseen years, making for an effective and astute cinematic experience. Its budget may be small but what it lacks in the financial department it makes up in ample measures in its ability to craft atmosphere, develop and detail its lead and supporting characters and deliver relevant, relatable themes and content.
Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes all portray Chiron terrifically, often with a great deal of subtlety and softness, embodying his struggle and understanding the difficulty in finding his place in the world; Hibbert's Chiron is probably the most confused, growing up in a society that has seemingly rejected the idea of anything less than macho brutality in a boy, very often at a toxic level that alienates Chiron from the start. It's a startling performance from such a young actor and his understanding of the character - from his silent observation of his neighbourhood to the very slight smile across his face during close contact with another boy - exceeds what is usually expected of a child actor. Moonlight's second act featuring a teenage Chiron is arguably the strongest, demonstrating the stage in his life in which he understands his sexuality but struggles to accept it, deftly delivered through an understated and formidable performance from Sanders. That moment on the beach with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is stunningly heartfelt, tender and atmospheric, delivering the film's defining moment - it will be a scene remembered for years to come. Finally, Rhodes' enlivened Chiron still struggles with his desire and fantasies but has crafted a confident exterior, only damaged slightly after receiving a phone call from Kevin (Holland), now a father. Playing out as a two-hander in this final stretch, Andre Holland and Chiron find the perfect dynamic - awkward yet amatory - with the slight vagueness surrounding Kevin's sexuality continually engaging the audience in questions of could-haves and might-haves, if they simply inhabited a more comfortable, accepting society - it instead causes loneliness and isolation, a preference for these characters over being true and wholly comfortable in themselves. Three stellar performances are all well and good on their own, but Moonlight offers a plethora of supporting characters that are equally as well-realised, developed and substantiated; Naomie Harris and Janelle Monae are note-perfect as Chiron's two maternal figures for completely opposing reasons - Paula (Harris), his biological mother, is emotionally-manipulating but their final scene is no emotions-barred, while Teresa (Monae, as excellent here as she was in Hidden Figures) is far more warming and motherly, acting as a safety blanket of acceptance for Chiron. Monae co-stars both here and in Figures, this time as husband and wife, with Supporting Actor front-runner Mahershala Ali, whose role as the imposing yet accepting Juan, a drug-dealer who becomes a mentor to Chiron, teaches him both practical and emotional skills, development and control. His role is all too brief but he ensures his presence is felt throughout the film's concise 111 minute runtime.
What is so great about Ali's character - and indeed many of the elements that make Moonlight so spectacular - is its consideration and work inside and outside of binaries; in an industry that so regularly relies on stereotypes and cliches to build their characters (supporting, in particular) into something remotely believable, Moonlight renders everything with a little more complexity, obliterating preconceptions; Juan may be a drug-dealer on the dangerous streets of Miami, but he is also a deeply-concerned and caring mentor to Chiron, becoming the father figure he otherwise lacked; that final sequence of the first act, in which Chiron asks him what a 'fag' is and whether he is one, followed by questioning his drug-dealing ways is note-perfect, the pinnacle moment of that first act. The fight sequence between Chiron and Kevin is both infuriating and heart-wrenching, like a fine balancing act experienced by the audience so profoundly and with a great intensity that you are overwrought with emotions to feel and experience; and one of the very final moments of Moonlight is like a poetic tug of war between acceptance and rejection, with the outcome somewhat hazy and ill-defined - brilliantly so. It is all expertly handled by Barry Jenkins, whose script and direction result in a beautiful orchestra of tightly-woven visuals, symbols and sounds producing a bittersweet symphony rarely heard, or seen, before in cinema or film. Jenkins' use of close-up allows the faintest of expressions to speak a hundred words each and every time, with the beach scene once again emphasising everything brilliant about this film in terms of its tenderness and heart. Jenkins awards each chapter its own directorial flourishes, from the haziness of the first act with Chiron as a child to the more technical, robotic movements at the beginning of the third, referencing Chiron's newly-found confident that slowly shatters as the act continues, up until the very final moments and its use of hand-held cameras, showing Black's continued discomfort with his sexuality and something he never truly finds solace with. That said, Jenkins leaves everything open to interpretation, a masterful stroke enabling audiences to make their own readings and understanding. Cinematographer James Laxton enhances every frames with striking colour saturations and neon glows, with the pink and blue at the forefront of select scene excellently reflecting the thematic balance of masculinity and the assertion of femininity that his peers taunts him with. Symbolically too, the presence of water in each of the three acts (particularly during pivotal scenes) ties the fragmented picture together, opening and closing the piece with the sound of crashing waves; Nicholas Britell's stunning soundtrack encourages this cohesion too - as effectively as Mica Levi's did for Jackie. It's the attention to detail that makes Moonlight such a startlingly raw, compelling and heartbreaking cinematic experience.
Admittedly though, Moonlight didn't compel me as immediately as expected. Entering the film, my expectations and excitement were sky-high, so the fact I couldn't quite connect to it for the first ten minutes began to greatly concern me; what if, I thought, this picture is too focused for its own good, preventing the story from opening up and capturing hearts. Thankfully, this element actually became something to champion as the film progressed, with the intimacy and humanity of the picture searing and the emotions deeply felt, no matter you gender, age, sexuality, background or nationality. A coming-of-age story that feels like an intensely lived-in character study, the film's vision and universal scope is impressive and my initial distance towards the first ten minute must be instantly rectified - I cannot wait to see this film again. Yes, we have a couple of instances where scenes feel unshakeably planted entirely for artistic experimentation and reason, interrupting the general flow and progression of the narrative and it does feel a little bit indie for its own good, but these are minor gripe in an otherwise brilliant film.
Moonlight rounds out the Oscar season rather perfectly. It is both beautiful and ugly, heartbreaking and life-affirming, a visual treat that never forgets the importance of story and character. Its sensitive tale of self-discovery is made with heart and humanity, powerfully forging a raw portrayal of sexuality, gender and race; Hollywood's barrel-scrapings of characters of colour and LGBT characters are united in our lead here and it never feels like a novelty when the film begins rolling and themes are explored with great resonance and intricacy. Barry Jenkins crafts a staggering, harrowing and elegant story of visual splendour and narrative relevance that feels as personal and intimate as it does universal. It's a mesmerising achievement that you need to experience.
Summary: Moonlight is an impeccable film that masters almost every single element; its performances, direction, visuals and score are mesmerising. It may be a little too indie for its own good in spots but basking in 'Moonlight' is a debt you owe yourself - who knows what you'll shine a light on.
Highlight: The beach scene is almost indescribable, perfectly crafted with such a tenderness and heart that you will not be able to shake it off.