As it’s Oscar season, there are plenty of high quality films being released weekly. From the uplifting La La Land, to the low-key yet devastatingly powerful Manchester by the Sea, it would appear as though we are spoilt for choice, and perhaps need a little guidance in finding that perfect little diamond amongst an assembly of highly polished gems.
Well, allow me to offer a helping hand and direct you in the path of a powerhouse production: Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. A low-budget indie drama, filmed across three days, Moonlight follows the life of Chiron, a young black man living in contemporary America, across three particular stages of his development. During this time, we see Chiron faced with issues of race, family and sexuality, matters that may make or break him.
Now I know the initial reaction this synopsis will inspire: ‘it’s a little heavy-handed isn’t it?’ And yet, there couldn’t be a more vital film in order to rejuvenate my faith in postmodernist filmmaking. We’re living in a time where we feel that films have to be bigger, better, flashier. Yet, Jenkins’ film proves the opposite is truer: the smaller the scale, the more detailed and illuminating is the drama.
And what drama you’ll find here. Never have I seen a film so affecting, in terms of cinematography, performance and writing. Jenkins has crafted a visual poem, a film that never fears from overthrowing stereotypes and challenging us to step out of our comfort zone. Chiron is an incredibly profound realisation, a character that is struck with some difficult decisions and circumstances, but still maintains his humanity. His story is brought to life not only by Jenkins’ assured writing and painterly direction, but by the triptych of fascinatingly real performances from the three actors brought in to portray Chiron: Alex Hibbert (as a child), Ashton Sanders (as a teenger) and Trevante Rhodes (as an adult). These cinematic features amalgamate together to form a mosaic of narrative genius, a film that so subtly tackles key issues, while fully enveloping itself within the medium of film so as to create stark imagery that works so beautifully alongside the realist quality of the performances.
It isn’t just Chiron that is focused upon though. Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali deliver standout support as the parental figures to Chiron. Harris plays the drug-addicted mother Paula, who’s often pushed to the limits due to this crisis, seriously affecting Chiron’s public reputation in the process. Ali, on the other hand, plays Juan, a drug dealer who is depicted as somewhat of a saviour for Chiron, rescuing him from bullies and taking care of him at times when his mother is absent. Both are played with nuance, with redemptive qualities imbued within both characters, and Jenkins refuses to judge anyone, a fresh take on a subject that creates so much debate.
All of these performances populate a cinematic sonata, a film that travels the entire emotional spectrum, from incredible highs such as a stirring beach encounter between Chiron and his friend Kevin (Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/André Holland across the three stages respectively), to tragic lows such as Juan’s confrontation with Paula over his treatment of Chiron. All of this is tackled with supreme focus by Jenkins, who with only his second feature film, has crafted a masterpiece, something that refuses to be labelled as anything in particular. While all facets of race, gender and sexuality all play into Chiron’s story, Jenkins doesn’t concoct a manifesto here: instead, he presents life, and shows that it should be accepted that these factors of life should not be hidden from view. The very nature of character relatability and perspective causes us to identify and empathise with Chiron’s struggles, discouraging us from simply treating Chiron as gay, black, male, but instead as a human. This is the true triumph of Jenkins’ film and something that is so thoughtfully brought to life by the performances of the entire cast.
It has been reported that, as the play that the film was based on was inspired by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s life, so too was the film based in part on experiences of Barry Jenkins. It is easy to feel this throughout, as Jenkins crafts a personal, profound journey through human development. Human life is a discovery, a gradual consciousness that throws the shroud off of the complexities of life. Jenkins makes it is his aim to depict this: Chiron travels from innocent youth to a man struck by the immense toils of internal and external human struggle. Moonlight must be experienced for this alone: the very construction of its narrative, and all the macro elements that come together, creates a cinematic moment, something that we should treasure. Jenkins dares to do what many filmmakers refuse; there’s no excess, no gloss, it’s all real, and yet so artistically prevalent that its identity as a piece of cinema is unmistakable.
Please, I understand the release is limited, but find the time to visit a local theatre and watch Moonlight. It may be emotionally demanding, but hopefully, like myself, you won’t be able to get away from its intoxicating and beautiful grip.