**** (out of five)
Barry Jenkins’ tale of a young man’s early life in three parts is a cinematic work of uncommon intimacy and integrity. Like the recent Jackie and the spectacular, micro-budget Krisha, it tells a simple, straightforward story with big, bold cinematic choices, particularly in its use of music, framing and colour. It is experiential as much as propelling, poetic as much as engaging. Like those other films, it feels like it is re-discovering the simple joys of image and sound; all three movies feel unburdened by any sort of “rules”, and they highlight the pedestrian way most films actually use mise-en-scene.
The film is about Chiron, played in the film’s three chapters by three different actors. In the first chapter, Chiron is a young boy living with his drug-taking mother (Naomi Harris, excellent) in Miami – and, subtly but definitely, gay. He knows it and other people know it, and it’s causing him confusion. Luckily, a local drug dealer (Marhershala Ali, showing the kind of powerful charisma exuded by Michael Kenneth Williams in The Wire and The Night Of) takes him under his wing.
In the second chapter, Chiron is a teenager, and in the third, a young man. The film’s dramatic crucible is how the third version of Chiron is created by the first two. His “gayness”, which is apparent to all (and in an example of the film’s subtle integrity, not at all to us) is an internal and external challenge for him; at his high school, his lone, outsider status has rendered him shy, awkward and vulnerable. Meanwhile, his mother’s drug use has developed into full-scale addiction, and his powerful mentor has (mysteriously?) disappeared, leaving behind his girlfriend (Janelle Monae), who can feed Chiron and love him, but still can’t get him to talk.
Chiron is a tricky character to engage with because his inherent character traits are so deliberately unengaging. Head bowed, silent, slight, he is trying to fade into the background or even disappear from the world, and the other characters’ frustration at his introversion is occasionally felt by us. But Jenkins’ bold decision to use three different actors pays off. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes obviously worked together to generate a set of physical and vocal characteristics for Chiron that provide a deep continuity for the character even as the film’s chosen narrative technique fractures him.
Miami is rendered exquisitely, as hot, colourful, exotic and edgy. We don’t often see Black American characters on beaches, staring at the ocean, and their stories are certainly rarely – if ever! – accompanied by the kind of score provided here by Nicholas Britell. Fuelled by big strings and piano, it’s evocative of classical European music – white man’s music. It’s another bold choice, almost of cultural appropriation (“reverse” cultural appropriation?) and it pays off gorgeously. Again, like Jackie and Krisha, the score here is integral to the experience of the film.
There’s a lot of hype around Moonlight; it won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture in the Drama category, and is a front-runner, with La La Land, for the Best Picture Oscar. It’s worth going in knowing that the story itself is simple, clear and hardly revolutionary; it’s the execution here that matters. It’s one of those rare films that actually hits you the hardest the moment it finishes, when, all of a sudden, you realise what it is that you’ve actually been watching.