Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Well Met By Moonlight

Barry Jenkins's Moonlight is a stunner. Presented in three parts, the film follows the coming-of-age of Chiron (played respectively at age nine, adolescence, and adulthood by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes - frictionless performances by all three) as he navigates a broken home, school bullying, and the stigma against his homosexuality. The story presents a simple, clear transition as he emerges as a leader with a single true desire that keeps the viewer mesmerized from start to finish. The final third of the film slows down a bit and could present us with more information about the man Chiron has become. However, as the first two parts of the film are kinetic masterpieces, it's a welcome break in the pacing and it reflects Chiron becoming someone who can finally live life not at the mercy of others but on his own measured terms. It feels earned.

When we first meet young Chiron (nicknamed "Little"), it's evident that there's something special about him. He's precocious, understands that there's something wrong with his living situation (his mother, Paula, is a neglectful, emotionally abusive addict - a terrific performance by Naomie Harris), and that he's well aware of his attraction to other boys. He forges a compelling relationship with local drug dealer Juan (a warm and charismatic Mahershala Ali) who connects to Chiron's awful home life in an organic and unexpected way. We see in Juan the man that indirectly perpetuates Chiron's living situation but also, ironically, the free man Chiron wants to become - free from his greedy mother, his ferocious classmates, and ultimately from shame.

Shame is a pervasive theme in Moonlight. Whether it's Juan the dealer, Paula the negligent mother, Kevin the best friend with a secret, or even Chiron himself, redemption is the film's rallying cry. Everyone has a secret, everyone builds walls, and everyone eventually lets someone in - for good or ill. When adolescent Chiron comes out to Kevin (thoughtfully and introspectively played at different ages by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland), it's a beautiful moment of liberation. James Laxton's cinematography shines in such a way as to make the moment as magical to us as if we had lived it, ourselves.

Each of the film's three parts is named after an aspect of Chiron, a name. Color imagery is pervasive. Juan's nickname is "Blue" and Chiron's later given the nickname "Black." Juan teaches Chiron that being honest with who you are is a full-time job but is also the surest path to achieving your desire even if your desire seems well out of reach. It's an honest lesson and organically shown, especially in a film that could (but never does) call upon stereotypes to carry the story.

Colors of light, colors of love.
Chiron's transition into adulthood is turbulent but clear. As an adult, he barely resembles the tiny, frightened child he used to be. As such, he could have been shown to be a more active character. When a certain figure from his past contacts him and initiates the film's final sequence, it might have been more effective if Chiron himself had been the one to reach out and connect, even as a tentative step. After all, this is the story of a young man changing from passive to active, and his chief motivating desire has never left him. Further, as nearly every story thread in the film had a coda, it might have been a strong choice to have seen a final story beat involving Terrel (Patrick Decile), adolescent Chiron's chief antagonist. Their final scene together was one of the most satisfying and horrifying moments in film over the past year, and as it set the stage for the remainder of the story, the story might have done well to include a final reckoning between the two as adults.

The film's music by Nicholas Britell is soft, subtle, and effective. I like to think of music as the language in which the characters think - a way to externalize the internal for the benefit of the audience. The music reinforces suspense and the soundtrack (including tunes by Mozart and Aretha Franklin) clearly exhibits a thoughtful selection on Jenkins's part.

Moonlight is one of the best films of the year. It is hard to watch, heartbreaking, and ultimately liberating. Chiron will earn your love and respect at the same time that he earns his own. Moonlight challenges Chiron - and the viewer - to shine compassion into our darkest places. When we let others in, even moonlight itself can blaze bright.


Jared teaches screenwriting in the Lehigh Valley. He has also taught at Emerson College and Salem State University. His creative work has appeared on MTV Networks, in the Tribeca Film Festival, and the Austin Film Festival. He offers screenplay coverage at www.screenplay.guru.

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