My first question on coming out of Moonlight was: who is Barry Jenkins? Who made this beautiful, completely absorbing, and perfectly cast film about a young man growing up gay and in poverty in Miami?
From the get-go the cinematography shows the confusion and instability of the world we’re entering. In the first scene, when local drug dealer Juan (the brilliant Mahershala Ali) checks out how one of his corners is doing, the camera spins wildly round him and his employee as they shoot the breeze. Moments later it’s shaking up and down as ten-year-old Chiron, aka ‘Little’ – the film’s protagonist over three eras of his life into young adulthood – runs from the school bullies who make his existence an endless ordeal.
Often such visual techniques are thrown in to seem clever, or “real”, or simply to hide the fact that the subject matter isn’t interesting enough. But in Moonlight it feels like every shot and visual connection has been carefully considered, and the result is that the harshness and disorientation of this world comes home to the viewer; it allows us to understand its characters more, with less exposition.
There’s a moment when the young Chiron comes back from his traumas at school to a home ruled by his crack-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris, in a career-best). He enters the run-down house as if coming through a mist, a haze that visually represents his fear, his uncertainty as to what he might find, and the way life has given him no solid foundation from which to realise himself.
When the kind-hearted Juan rescues him from his bullies, and later, temporarily, from his mother, Chiron is drawn to this father figure – the only male role model in his life. But when the child realises that Juan is able to live well and be kind only because he sells drugs to his mother and people like her, the film pinpoints the bitter irony and complex problems at the heart of this community.
There is a lot of silence in this film and it works beautifully; it’s like real life – people don’t readily express themselves; issues are buried; almost everything is left unsaid. You just keep on keeping on – that’s it.
The casting and acting is universally superb, and in the third and final part of the film Trevante Rhodes’ performance as the adult Chiron is affecting in the subtle ways he shows that, despite much change, Chiron is still the same lost young boy from the early scenes.
A little research reveals that Barry Jenkins is a young director, with another feature under his belt – Medicine for Melancholy – who gave up a well-paid position in Hollywood as an assistant to focus on his own work. He’s never made a better decision, and it will be very disappointing if Moonlight doesn’t get some Oscar heat.
Not that it really matters; Moonlight stands alone. Part love story, part struggle for identity, the familiar tropes of a black community riddled with poverty, violence, drugs, the absence of father figures, and intense social pressures are all present. Yet the film never slips into cliché. The streets and those who work them, or are affected by them, are represented neither as gangsta-tough nor simply tragic. The territory may be familiar, but this particular story and its telling is both powerfully singular and extremely moving.
Moonlight screens at the BFI London Film Festival 2016.