Barry Jenkins’ (Medicine for Melancholy) sophomore effort pleasantly redefines the codes and conventions of the “black youth” movie by placing crime and drugs on the periphery, instead examining a young man grappling with his sexuality over three pivotal periods of his early life.
Moonlight begins when protagonist Chiron is a young boy nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert), then leaps forward to follow a window of his life as a high-schooler (Ashton Sanders) and finally, catches up with him once more as an adult (Trevante Rhodes). Each time leap is informed by what came before, as Chiron finds his repressed sexuality returning again and again.
There’s an exceeding cleverness to the way in which Jenkins frames his story; it starts out with Chiron being taken under the wing of a local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who offers up unexpectedly smart advice and refuses to recruit his kinda-adoptive son into the dope game. Rather than be yet another cautionary tale in the vein of Boyz n the Hood, Moonlight leaps off to probe Chiron’s early struggle with understanding his sexuality and one particular encounter that’s haunted him ever since.
Jenkins’ engagement with black masculinity as such feels staggeringly unique, lowering the stakes from usual “urban drama” but attaining a greater deal of intimacy as a result. That this story also happens to be gorgeously shot by James Laxton (who takes a major step up from lensing Kevin Smith’s Tusk and Yoga Hosers) and lent an ethereal, soulful score by Nicholas Britell, is really just the icing on the cake.
Performance-wise, Moonlight is largely beyond reproach, with the trio of actors playing Chiron helping to consistently convey the epochal quality of his various discoveries and interactions throughout, even as each “version” of the character is distinctly its own. It’s the adult characters who perhaps steal the show, though, especially Mahershala Ali in a convention-defying role even if he’s in the movie far less than you may expect (and that’s not the spoiler you might think it is), and Naomie Harris in a fiery, career-best performance as Chiron’s drug-addled mother Paula.
From the below-the-line crafts through to the performances, direction and screenplay, Moonlight is a meticulously-crafted drama that demonstrates the cliche-swatting possibilities of “black cinema”, and given the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy, it couldn’t really come at a much better time. Don’t be surprised if it goes all the way and snags the Best Picture gong.
Moonlight premieres at the London Film Festival on October 6th, and is in US cinemas October 21st.