“What’s a faggot? Am I a faggot? How do I know?” Berry Jenkin’s “Moonlight,” based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” is a beautiful contemplation on the excruciating and universal plight of identity formation. It is a coming-of-age drama about Chiron — an African-American man from Miami struggling with his sexuality — told in three chapters, each depicting him in critical stages of his life: Childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
“Moonlight” is Jenkin’s second feature, though blind viewing would suggest the work of an auteur well-versed in filmmaking. It even suggests the type of vulnerability only seen in autobiographical or pseudo-autobiographical films. To an extent, this is true: Like Chiron, Jenkins was born and raised in Liberty City, Miami and due to his mother’s drug addiction he was raised by another woman. Unlike Chiron, Jenkins is not gay. Never before have I seen such a great film with a plot so heavily centered on queer culture not directed or written by a queer filmmaker; Gus Van Sant has “My Own Private Idaho” and “Milk,” Andrew Haigh has “Weekend,” Kimberly Pierce has “Boys Don’t Cry” and Xavier Dolan has (almost) his entire filmography dedicated to the deeply personal theme that is queer identity. Therein lies the most exquisite quality of “Moonlight” — this is not an esoteric work to be pigeonholed as queer cinema for queer folk, this is a film that speaks to what it means to be a human being navigating through the tantalizing world in a quest for knowledge-of-self. It examines how we see others in relation to ourselves, our abilities to love and trust one another and most importantly the distance we often place between ourselves and the world around us. Jenkins might have shot himself in the foot here because all subsequent work he creates will be compared to this masterful display.
Working with children in movies can be extremely difficult, but thanks to both Jenkins’ precise direction and child actor Alex Hibbert’s phenomenal performance, the first third of “Moonlight” is deeply riveting. Hibbert excels in his portrayal of a young Chiron (AKA “Little”), a quiet and timid boy who seems to inevitably attract bullies. Even Chiron’s only friend Kevin, played by Jaden Piner, puts in more believable work than many adult actors in films with bigger budgets. Chiron’s teenage years showcase Ashton Sanders carrying over his younger counterpart’s reserved and melancholic disposition. The young Sanders does an excellent job of making the audience sympathize with Chiron, making his pain and loneliness palpable. Naturally, Trevante Rhodes lives up to the younger actors’ performances and expands upon his character’s idiosyncrasies even more. The licking of the lips, the way he dresses, his whole façade to be as hard as he can be in an effort to shield himself from the world and emulate the father figure he once had speaks volumes on his character without saying too much. This is characterization done right.
Taking place in Miami, one might expect to see gratuitous shots of beaches with an abundance of oversexualized bodies, but “Moonlight” subverts this cliche in favor of more toned down settings rich in color. In fact, the few times beaches appear are critical and completely contrary to the normal representation of Miami beaches: A baptismal scene, a love scene and an end scene a la “The 400 Blows” seem to take place in a vacuum of sorts, carrying with them a surreal quality aided by gloomy blue lighting. On that note, “Moonlight” makes great use of lighting not too unlike the type seen in filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn’s work, utilizing neon and pastel palettes to liven the often ramshackle environments. Cinematographer James Laxton’s use of shallow depth-of-focus is an interesting and unique visual effect, doubling down on the dreamy qualities of the film that Jenkins was surely aiming for. Most of the film shoots its characters just close enough to not get in characters’ faces — right where they want you to be. I found this tendency remarkable, seeing camerawork that speaks to the films themes is rewarding to those who give the film the attention it demands. Overall, the camerawork floats ethereally and especially aids the film’s tone and Chiron’s sense of forlorn hope.
If there is any film to see this year, it’s “Moonlight.” Tender in approach and sharp in craft, its humane narrative is thoroughly compelling and deserving of close examination.