This is a filmmakers’ film, artistic and raw. I am usually a fan of the ‘less is more’ ideology and Moonlight is masterfully minimalist. Very clearly made with a small budget, a kind of guerrilla movie making was on display. In many ways, watching a film is part introspection. A journey by the viewer to suspend their disbelief and associate with the characters on the screen. This film is an exercise in just that. I read a review I liked, explaining the aesthetics in more detail and you can check that out here.
The thing that jumps out when watching this initially is the cinematography. The majority of the film is shot using handheld cameras. The unsteady, often times shaky, camera work reflective of the setting. Downtrodden Miami, rife with poverty and drugs. James Laxton did a great job placing the audience alongside the characters. Through the progression of the film and the lead character Chiron, the camera work becomes more stable as the world around him solidifies. The film editing by Joi McMillan and Nat Sanders really complemented Laxton’s style and helped to maximize every scene, subtly forcing the audience into the experience.
Writer/Director Barry Jenkins worked with Laxton previously on Medicine for Melancholy (2008) understands what he brings to a project. Jenkins is from Miami and understood visual storytelling would be paramount to conveying the environment. He was dead on. His screenplay based on the story by Tarell Alvin McCraney focuses heavily on dialogue, effectuating the personality of the surroundings as much as the characters. It’s about the peripheral people and how the environment shapes the individual. Jenkins had a tough task communicating and motivating three different actors playing the same character through stages of his life, but I believe he did a terrific job.
There is an underlying unity between the three, exemplifying a sense of displacement. Each one bringing unique but congruent efforts to the screen. First time Alex R. Hibbert plays young Chiron/Little, a young boy unsure of his place among his peers and tormented by others for his ambiguity. He wasn’t tasked with weighted dialogue and is often communicating solely with body language. However, when he speaks the dialogue is poignant and all the more powerful. Ashton Sanders plays teenage Chiron and delivers the definitive performance of the three. He deals with teenage angst, a mother crippled by drug addiction, burgeoning sexual awareness and constant harassment at school. His story is a formative one, bridging the gap from childhood to adulthood. I expect to see big things in the future for Sanders. Trevante Rhodes plays Black, Chiron hardened and sharpened by the experiences of his younger versions. Rhodes does a good job playing both sides of the coin, the accumulated persona and the inner child.
Acting throughout the film was stellar. Notably Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris. I remember watching Ali in The 4400, a little known Sci-Fi drama on the USA Network, back in 2004. He always showed strong potential and has subsequently turned in strong performances with every opportunity. He played Juan, a street wise drug dealer with a soft spot for young Little and strong sense of community despite his income stream. Acting as Little’s de facto father figure, he does his best to teach the young boy about life and the world that surrounds it. Ali was in complete command of his character and, by far, the most enjoyable to watch on screen. He was flanked in opposition by Harris who played Little’s mom Paula. Her gradual downward spiral was painful to behold. Manic, possessive and stubborn. The character juxtaposition between her and Juan was a contrast in personal responsibility. The stranger versus the mother. She was phenomenal and well deserving of Best Actress consideration.
This was the one movie I had kept hearing about but had missed out on, but once it won Best Motion Picture Drama at the Golden Globes, I was forced to seek it out. Although I thought this film was very good, I’m not sure it’s the best I’ve seen this year.
Recommendation: If you’re a fan of film and filmmaking, then this one’s for you. It’s style is refreshing, the acting is top tier throughout and the techniques are noteworthy. It doesn’t have gratuitous violence or nudity, but it’s still too mature for a family outing.