Only the second film from director Barry Jenkins, and his second collaboration with cinematographer James Laxton, Moonlight is an intensely personal, stunningly realized portrait of a man named Chiron, told in three segments that encapsulate three stages of his life.
Like Fences, Moonlight is adapted from a play, albeit one that was never actually staged. However, in contrast to Washington’s film, Moonlight is well and truly translated to its medium, making masterful use of the visual language of cinema. To use the old cliché, every frame here truly is a painting, as Jenkins, Laxton and colorist Alex Bickle use, light, color and composition with a skillful intentionality reminiscent of Wong Kar Wai.
Although there isn’t much dialogue in the movie, the performances from all involved are excellent, so nuanced and genuine that a viewer might be tempted to believe it’s documentary. The combination of these performances and the profoundly personal direction makes the film feel so authentic and intimate that at times the act of watching feels transgressive.
The triptych structure of the film is interesting, highlighting the film’s refusal to “fill in the gaps” for the audience. It declines to provide any easy answers, or deliver a pre-packaged message for the viewer. Instead, it simply allows Chiron to exist in an intensely human way. Although he is both black and gay, and these attributes certainly inform his experiences and his character, the narrative is refreshingly not framed through the lens of race or sexuality. Chiron is not confined to the box of “black man” or “gay man”, and the story is not a “black story” or a “gay story”, but a fully realized human story.
All this being said, there are some issues with the film. The triptych structure, though interesting, does make the story feel somewhat incomplete at times, and the fact that Chiron is played by three very dissimilar (but all very skilled) actors is a bit jarring at first. Naomie Harris’ performance as Chiron’s mother is excellent, but her arc is the only thing in the film that feels a touch cliché.
Verdict: Moonlight is a masterclass in intimate visual storytelling, although the lack of any concrete answers or neat resolutions may leave the viewer feeling a bit unsatisfied. Everyone should see this movie, but especially anyone who has an interest in the craft of filmmaking.
Prediction: Along with Best Picture, Moonlight is nominated for Directing, Cinematography, Film Editing, Original Score, and Adapted Screenplay. Mahershala Ali and Naomi Harris are also both nominated in their respective Supporting Role categories. If Laxton doesn’t get the win for Cinematography, it will be a crime against film. However, I think he’ll unfortunately lose to La La Land’s Linus Sandgren. I’m betting that Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney will take Best Adapted Screenplay, and Mahershala Ali will doubtless win for Actor in a Supporting Role. There is a chance that Moonlight could take the richly-deserved Best Picture win, and even Directing is possible, if the Academy is concerned about shaking off last’s year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy and making a statement in today’s tumultuous political climate. It would be the right choice for the wrong reasons, but I’m not betting on it.