By Greg Mysogland
These days, films with genuine thematic weight tend to be complex, grand affairs, often occurring in historical settings. Director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is an exception, packing more emotion and poignant social commentary into its 110 minutes than most epic historical dramas or star-studded political thrillers. Moonlight’s power stems mostly from its intimacy, found in the struggles of an individual character speaking profoundly about various societal issues.
Moonlight tells the story of a young black man named Chiron who slowly discovers that he is gay while suffering incessant bullying and dealing with his drug addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). Jenkins wrote the film’s screenplay, which is broken into three chapters, and depicts Chiron as a child, teenager and young adult.
The three actors who play Chiron, (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) are complementary. Their performances are suitably similar, so the viewer believes they are the same person but they are individual enough to convey Chiron’s various emotional states.
Jenkins is the film’s greatest asset. His screenplay gracefully weaves between the various social issues it seeks to confront while never diverging from the central story of Chiron’s struggle with his sexuality. The film calls attention to problems like homophobia, bullying, addiction and institutional racism through Chiron’s experiences. The film’s social commentary is subtle enough to feel natural. Jenkins’ direction is the other key to the film’s success. Moonlight is a uniquely intimate experience, and Jenkins portrays this through masterful composition.
The intense emotion of Chiron’s story necessitates a large number of close-ups. However, Jenkins maintains variety through long tracking shots and low angles that visually express Chiron’s developing sexual orientation. Unfortunately, it must be noted that the film’s strong art house sensibilities occasionally become self-indulgent, such as the titular shots of the moon which, although obviously symbolic, are entirely superfluous. Additionally, the film’s ending, while emotionally powerful, is ambiguous to the point of being somewhat unsatisfying.
Moonlight’s entire supporting cast does admirable work, but Harris and Mahershala Ali, (playing drug dealer Juan who becomes a surrogate father figure to Chiron) are standouts. Harris likely claims the most screen time among the entire cast, as she is the only member to appear in all three chapters of the film, and gives the most dynamic performance. She is both disturbingly ferocious in scenes where Paula verbally abuses Chiron and genuinely pitiable when depicting withdrawal. Ali alternates between a hard-edged “business” persona, general swaggering charm and touching kindness spectacularly. A scene he shares with Alex Hibbert at the end of the first chapter is the film’s most emotional.
Moonlight is essential viewing for film buffs. Its emotional power, creative direction and exceptional cast will likely earn the film several awards nominations, though its frank depictions of less glamorous aspects of sexuality may cost it the support of old-fashioned voters. Ultimately, Jenkins’ film is one of 2016’s best, although the overuse of abstraction and symbolism prevent it from being a masterpiece.