Movie Review: Moonlight
Director: Barry Jenkins
Reviewed: 19 February 2017
I cannot shake Barry Jenkins's masterpiece Moonlight out of my head. In its quiet, steady power, he unpacks identity in an unnerving way that evokes a line from William Faulkner's A Requiem for a Nun: "The past is never dead; It's not even past." By using three different actors to portray the lead character at three different moments in his life, Jenkins forces the audience to search for the unity and the linkages in what makes us who we are. An earring here. A look there. A choice of car. A choice of music. A decision made in haste. One made over time. One of regret. One that lingers for many lost years. I really do think that this film has a poetic, transformative, Malickian power and is undeniable in its artistry and boldness. Jenkins contends that our past is not even past; we carry it with us and within us in the different people that we have been in our lives.
In Miami, Little (Alex R. Hibbert) flees his mother's addiction and some vicious bullying by wandering the neighborhood, breaking into abandoned buildings, and thus befriends a local drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). The friendship eschews easy description: it is not a clear mentorship, but Little craves someone to ask questions to, someone to be with, someone to bond with as he grows more distant from his addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris). Little wonders about his sexuality and place in the world. Juan states, "At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you" to an impressionable young man at a pivotal moment. A chance encounter between Juan and Paula forces a crisis of conscience for both, but there are no easy answers.
Fast forward in time, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) moves through his high school alone and ostracized, brutalized by bullies. In this chapter, a friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) has the possibility to blossom into something more. His mom and Teresa are constants in his life, offering different polarities of love and possibilities of life. Chiron makes a decision that echoes for the rest of his life in its power.
Fast forward even more in time, now going by the name Black (Trevante Rhodes), he moves through the world echoing some of the choices made by Juan and denying the feelings driven by Kevin. Who he is seems shaped by the ghost of Juan. A phone call from Kevin brings him back to Miami. There is so much to think about in this quiet third act where a song on a jukebox has the power of an emotional grenade, and the decision to stay or go becomes elemental and consequential. Black's negotiating of himself, his sexuality, his identity, and his future become the crux of the film's final moments.
Jenkins frequently places his hand-held camera behind the character's head, so we do not see the actor's face as he traverses parking lots and overgrown fields. The film's construction challenges us to link the chapters, to unify the person, to trace the construction of identity. And there is Jenkins's most profound element: he forces us to consider how we become who we become. The film feels linked to a place, this neighborhood in Miami and its beach. The colors of the film are beautiful; the score, soaring. I am just in awe of Jenkins's power as a storyteller, the craftsmanship of the performances. It makes me think about the different versions of myself at different times and places: Elmhurst, Gambier, Houston, Philadelphia, Houston Part Deux. I see my son transform before my eyes, now a little boy. I hold my fourteen month-old daughter who is starting to walk and make sounds into words, wondering what the world will be like for her and what she will be like for the world. I think about how Juan comforts Little as he floats in the ocean for the first time: "Ok. Let your head rest in my hand. Relax. I got you. I promise. I won't let you go. Hey man. I got you. There you go. Ten Seconds. Right there. You in the middle of the world."
We are in the middle of the world with hands both seen and unseen holding us. We are in the middle of the world with Moonlight, its beauty and its grace. I will never forget this film.