Moonlight is adapted from a never-produced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, the chair of playwriting at the Yale School of Drama. Why the play wasn’t produced I am not sure, nor at this point do I care to know. All I can say is that I am glad that it wasn’t so that there is nothing I can compare it to in the way that people often do when a produced play is adapted for the screen like 2013’s August: Osage County. I am even more glad because what is put to screen is one of the most delicately crafted, well-made, and subtle works of film that I have seen all year, if not ever. Whatever material was left in the stage play I can say ought to be disregarded, as what’s left is as brilliant, as deep, and as purposeful as any work of stage or screen can hope to be.
Okay, let me take a step back. I actually saw this film almost a month ago, but due to time constraints I am only reviewing it now. That being said, the images, the words, and lasting effect that the film had on me have remained in my head since then and may require me to make this the first film I have seen more than once in a theater in about a year-and-a-half. Moonlight, as I mentioned above, is adapted from a play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, and is directed by Barry Jenkins. I profess to never having heard of Jenkins prior to this movie, but what he brings to the table is a breadth of personal experience that allows this film to be an excellent character study both of a single human life, as well as a sweeping statement on personality and environment. The story centers on Chiron, a young African-American man who develops over the course of the film in three scenes. One set in his childhood in which he is played by Alex Hibbert, then as a teenager portrayed by Ashton Sanders, and finally as an adult by Trevante Rhodes. All three actors have a great task set before them but at no point does it feel like you are watching three people. So complete is their characterization that it feels like they may have all been a single person and that is essential to the personal nature of the film.
In addition to Chiron, there are two characters that appear throughout the story: Kevin, also played by three actors, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland, in order, and Paula, Chiron’s mother, played in all three acts by Naomie Harris. All three actors playing Kevin do a solid job, although the character never appears enough for consistency to be key. That being said Holland does do an amazing job. Harris, who I’ve only seen before in Skyfall as Eve Moneypenny, is a revelation in this film. Not only does she bring a great sense of heft and gravitas to the role, but also a truly heartbreaking layer to the story that ground the film in unfortunate reality. Every second she is on screen has remained a haunting image in my mind, and the fact that she appears in every part of the film allows her character to have her own arch mirroring Chiron’s.
In addition to Kevin and Paula, Chiron is raised by two other individuals in place of a lacking maternal figure and a never-seen father. Mahershala Ali plays Juan, a Black Cuban immigrant who provides the young Chiron with much-needed direction in his childhood. Ali plays the role subtly and close to his chest, allowing Juan to become a haunting presence throughout the film even when he is not on screen. Juan’s girlfriend and Chiron’s maternal figure is Teresa, played by singer-turned-actress Janelle Monae. Monae takes the role very seriously and is always a calm and welcome presence in contrast to Harris’ Paula. Both try to orient Chiron on his own path and fight the poisonous elements of his environment, but some prove too much to overcome. That’s all that I’ll say on the subject of plot.
In addition to this being a story of self-discovery as an African-American man, Chiron is also confronted with internal feelings that there’s something different about him. A certain something that doesn’t make him like all of the other Black boys. As the first act creeps on it becomes apparent that what he means is homosexuality. This is the part of the story where Kevin becomes essential. He provides a companion to Chiron at some parts, and an object of desire at others. Key to the title of the play this movie was based on as well as the film itself is the recurrence of night and the ocean, one a haunting setting where Chiron can truly try and be himself, often confronted with the harsh realities of his home life or the unflinching mirror of his dreams. The other is the ocean, in which he is able to choose the way that he moves. In scenes at night by the ocean Chiron is faced with the two against one another, and this provides an excellent segue into discussing the films technical elements.
For such a small film, one would not expect such technical perfection. The cinematography by James Laxton is most deserving of this level of praise. There is not a shot out of place in this whole film and he masterfully transitions between scenes that represent the harsh, immovable reality of Chiron’s daytime existence with the dreamlike, at times literally so, atmosphere of the night. Also deserving are both Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon, the film’s editors, as well as Nicholas Britell, whose score for the film is gorgeous, elegiac, and speaks perfectly to the inner sense of conflict and turmoil within Chiron. Every one of them is deserving of praise both in writing and hopefully in awards. This is also a testament to Barry Jenkins’ direction, and it is him and McCraney whose story shines best in the moonlight here.
I am especially glad that this film is released now, and the reason I believe that it is finding its audience, is because it’s a wholly different story from most anything else we see on the screen. While there are plenty of films about how difficult it is to be a White man, there are plenty of those, there has also been a sense of yearning for a more diverse voice in cinema, and Barry Jenkins is that voice to a “t.” Roger Ebert once said that “movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” and Moonlight is exactly what he meant. It is the chance to see life from a perspective many of us, including myself, may never get to see. What the film offers is a chance to attach to a deeply personal story, but also one that transcends its characters in a way thanks to a larger societal context that it speaks to. At the same time it manages to be a nearly flawless movie in technical construction, crafted with care and skill. This is truly a most deserving film and you should see it.