I noticed while reading advance reviews and articles on “Moonlight” that, unlike most films, these pieces didn’t give me much sense of what the film is. After finally seeing it myself, I understand why that is, and why it’s actually one of the reasons “Moonlight” is so special. Try as I might, I can’t seem to find the right words to describe the film, to make it tangible and comprehensible to those I might be enthusiastically recommending it to.
I could summarize the plot, but that would only provide a small fragment of the experience. I’ll try anyway. Taking place mostly in Miami, the film follows the life of Chiron, a young gay black man growing up and discovering himself. The film is segmented into three parts: Chiron’s early childhood, where he is referred to as “Little” (Alex Hibbert), his adolescence (Ashton Sanders), and his early adulthood, where he has chosen the name “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). Throughout these three stages, Chiron deals with living in a rough part of town, his emerging homosexuality and his crack addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), while receiving guidance from a sympathetic drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae).
It sounds familiar – ‘hood melodrama meets queer coming-of-age – and it is riddled with tropes and stereotypes. But, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, cinema isn’t what it’s about, but how it’s about it. And the “how” of “Moonlight” is impressive to the point where the film’s flaws melt away.
And yet, it would be disingenuous to ignore them. For one, the women in this film are wildly underserved. Teresa is little more than a comfortingly matriarchal figure, who graciously opens her home to Chiron and serves as caretaker to him and Juan. And Paula gets a rather clichéd addict arc when she’s not acting as a force of abject terror in Chiron’s life. And for a film that seems to want to challenge mainstream cinematic norms about whose stories matter, the film can at times feel too palatable, too comforting. There are moments in the first two sections that really lay it on in terms of making you sympathize with Chiron and the film can sometimes break the spell it has so expertly cast because of how hard it’s pushing to make you feel sorry for the poor kid.
But even as I make these criticisms, there’s a little voice contradicting them. If it feels like we’ve seen this type of story too many times before, maybe it’s because racial and financial inequality has been a problem for so long and we still haven’t dealt with it. The artists behind these stories are simply doing their job and reflecting the reality of the world and sharing their own experience. And the writers, Barry Jenkins (who wrote the screenplay) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (who wrote the unproduced play Jenkins script is based on) grew up in Miami under very similar circumstances to Chiron, giving their story a ring of truth
Many have said this is a film about masculinity, sexuality, identity and the black experience. And while these are all true, the film most resonantly strikes me as a hopeful, humanistic, and warm film about vulnerability and people’s capacity for change. It is jarring how the characters physically transform as they age through the film, but it serves the film’s purpose in demonstrating how our life circumstances and our environments can radically turn us into different people. Compared to her behavior in the first parts of the film, Paula feels like a completely different woman by the film’s conclusion. And she’s played by the same woman, unlike Chiron, who’s played by three actors who are very different physically (especially when you compare Sanders and Rhodes). You can imagine how much it feels like Chiron changes over the years, yet kudos to Jenkins for casting three actors that still feel like they are the same man.
But again, I still haven’t given you any idea of what the film is, what it’s like. I don’t think I or anyone else can. It is that rare, special film that works as pure cinema, because words will not even come close to doing it justice. It must be seen, heard, and felt to be understood, to be believed. It’s gorgeously ephemeral, hazy and intangible the way memory is. I could wax poetic about the masterful music, cinematography, editing, production design and performances, but it would do them a disservice. Nor would it accurately capture how Jenkins expertly brings these elements together into a compelling whole.
I could go on, but instead I’ll do you a favor. I’ll end this review now. Because every second you’re sitting here reading this is another second you’re not in a movie theater watching “Moonlight.” Close this tab, look up the closest theater that’s playing it and order your tickets. You’ll hear a lot of hype as this film racks up numerous awards in the coming months. Believe the hype, “Moonlight” deserves it. It really is one of the year’s best films.