Sometimes, when you think the cinema you are constantly exposed to can seem staid and similar a broadside thunders, and your expectations are beautifully shattered. The reputation of Moonlight hustled up a high bar of brilliance, coalescing since its rapturous responses throughout the festival circuit of 2016. Initially, during the first part of my screening I was intrigued but I wasn’t necessarily immersed – an early, flashy single take that dervishly swerves around a scorching Miami neighbourhood smacked a little of indulgence, and setting yet another film in a narcotic nested centre of the African American experience could only make me think that we’ve been here too many times already. But then one early scene pours from the screen in such indecipherable beauty, when mid level drug baron Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches a young boy, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) how to swim in the Miami surf, and this deeply moving film never looks back. Juan has taken this neglected and withdrawn boy under his wing after discovering him wondering through some ruined tenements in the ghetto of Liberty City, his father absent, his mother grappling with her own substance abuse demons.
Barry Jenkins adaptation of screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue charts Chiron through three formative periods of his life, as a boy, as a gangling and sullen teenager (played by Asthon Sanders) and then as a young man (a broodingly fragile Trevante Rhodes), his moniker shifting from school nickname to street name through a procession of identities. That is just one of the connective tissues that emphasise the underlying currents of self and soul that permeate the picture, beautifully rendered in a trio of linked performances from three previously unknown actors. Although I was initially perturbed by the unfolding of yet another tale of African American experience unfolding in the ghetto, of slinging on the corners and avoiding 5-0 it soon becomes clear that this is merely the backdrop of a wider psalm on our perceptions of the self and how these can change through time and circumstance, the id in a constant state of flux and evolution. Naomi Harris (better known as Moneypenny in the latest Bond’s) as Chiron’s mother and Ali (the fixer Remy in House Of Cards) are both fantastic support, surrounding Chiron with fully rendered adults to his wounded interior, with all their complexities and contradictions in full display.
For a sophomore effort (his first film, Medicine For Melancholy is already being reassessed) this is a film which is deeply accomplished, fully deserving of the panoply of awards it has attracted and its affinity with the best work of Wong Kar Wai and Lynne Ramsay, both cited by Jenkins as crucial influences. The palette is that of combining intimate, handheld closeness coupled with broad widescreen environments, James Laxton’s cinematography brilliantly blazing within the alabaster Miami sun and a twilight of shimmering oranges. Through these designs the film levitates, hovering in that space between self daydream and cognitive inquiry, where crucially Laxton lights the space, not the characters so they can work and move within the dimensions of specific scenes. Carefully orchestrated through the performances, score, masterful manipulation of exposition and colour schemata Moonlight weaves through the influential moments of this young man’s life, before alighting on a devastating emotional conclusion, without resorting to the usual closure of the screen-writing 101 playbook.
A rather lazy but accurate pitchline for the film has devolved to Boyhood meets Boyz In The Hood. Rather more beautifully I’ve heard Moonlight compared to ‘Caravaggio in Florida’, and as a culturally shrewd punctuation mark on the Obama era, of racial advancement and civic progress for gay rights, whch forms a an important thread but not the entirety of Chiron’s story. What is clear is that beyond the surface sexual and racial politics is that Moonlight is a cartography of shifting identities, not just of his life and struggles but also those of his mother and other ancillary characters, divorced from the usual social realist take on growing up poor, in troubled circumstances in modern America. Rather forlornly one hopes that it can overcome the steam train of the undeniably entertaining, skilled yet in comparison rather hollow La La Land come Sunday night, but I’m sure the Academy will favour another valentine to itself rather than this infinitely more complex meditation on masculinity. Believe the hype, this is a major film from a major new voice, aching and vibrant with bittersweet beauty;