VOD film review: Moonlight
James R | On 19, Jun 2017
Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris
Watch Moonlight online in the UK: All 4 / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
“Hello stranger. It seems so good to see you back again. How long has it been? It seems like a mighty long time…” Barbara Lewis sings those words as two men meet in a diner in Moonlight, a film about lost connections, personal memories and hidden selves. It’s a tiny, iconic moment in a movie full of tiny, iconic moments – a snapshot of something profoundly personal and quietly universal.
Based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the film tracks the growth of Chiron, a young kid in 1980s Miami, whose burgeoning sexuality makes him different from the others in his class. Barry Jenkins’ script follows the source material’s conceit of three acts, turning a theatrical device into an elegant piece of visual poetry; a coming-of-age triptych that jumps through the years of Chiron’s youth and into his eventual adulthood.
It’s a journey of hard knocks, tender kisses and powerful silences. That silence provides endless breathing space for the cast to express the nuanced shifts in thoughts and feelings that come with growing up – and we hear every exhale. For young Chiron (Alex Hibbert), that’s the imperceptible sigh of fear, as the withdrawn child finds himself taken under the wing of local dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Morae). For teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders), it’s the gasp of concealed affection that eventually escapes one night on the beach with his best friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). And for adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), it’s the calm respiration of a carefully maintained exterior of macho intimidation.
“I built myself from the ground up,” adult Chiron says at one point, from behind his metallic fronts. “Built myself hard.”
All three men are astonishing, channeling that same, shy stillness while concealing Chiron’s inner emotions under another layer of reticence and resilience. In their own way, they each latch on to the image of manliness projected around them, from Hibbert’s anger at having chips taken away from him in a local diner to Sanders’ lashing out at the kids picking on him at school. Each chapter is titled after Chiron’s nickname at that stage in his life. Little, Blue, Black, they’re all names given to him, never chosen.
Chiron’s central presence is balanced by an equally superb supporting cast. Naomie Harris is unrecognisable as his junkie mother, her abusive behaviour the only thing more brutal than the bullying he receives at school. Mahershala Ali, meanwhile, delivers his best performance yet as the deceptively gentle Juan. Somewhere between House of Cards’ slick Remy Danton and Luke Cage’s corrupting Cottonmouth, he’s so disarming that you almost wish we spent the whole film with him.
That, though, would stop us from experiencing Chiron’s slow reclaiming of his life – and Ali’s Juan plants the seed that blossoms into the movie’s poignant theme. “At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you gonna be,” he tells young Chiron. “You can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
Jenkins joins the dots between his three stages of growth with an underplayed gravitas that builds to a thoughtful meditation on masculinity. Blue-tinted, silhouetted and gently edited, it’s a thoughtful composition that’s given unspoken weight by a sublime soundtrack. Nicholas Britell’s score begins with an eight-note piano and violin theme that reaches up with a yearning simplicity, before shifting into a melancholic minor chord. As Chiron gets older, and his homosexuality is buried beneath that tough surface, the music is chopped and screwed so that it drops down several pitches and becomes slightly distorted – creating an intensely suppressed passion that whispers through every scene. By the time we see a grown-up Kevin (the gorgeously charismatic André Holland) late on, that passion bursts through onto the radio in the form of Barbara Lewis.
The mesmerising result feels all too relevant to modern America; the movies, as Roger Ebert once said, are a machine that generates empathy, and at a time when intolerance, hatred and a lack of understanding permeates so much of society, this beautifully intimate tale draws people in from any background to relate to the story of one man’s identity, which is shaped by, but never solely defined by, his upbringing, location, poverty or sexuality. It’s a big tale that dares to stay small, a touching tribute to reconciliation, a brooding deconstruction of black masculinity, a painstakingly pieced-together slice of effortless art – and a reminder that the word “stranger” doesn’t always have to mean other people.
Moonlight is available on All 4 until 21st May 2020.