Set in a Miami of demanding exclamation points, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight presents identity as a question mark. Not only is self-actualization the victim of social norms and expectations, but one’s identity is often out of reach thanks to that very circumstance. As if that weren’t insurmountable enough, there is also trauma grabbing us by the neck to define us. And is our chosen persona something we chase or run from? In Jenkins’s hand, identity is tough to define as we’re always in a state of transition as well.
Let’s not be so tacky as to call Moonlight universal. The story of young African American Chiron’s developing awareness of his homosexuality within the drug-riddled Miami inner-city may have various points of entry over its triptych for all audiences to relate, but Jenkins never chases anything but the hyper specific. His open-hearted (or bursting hearted) approach to a very exact story is certainly for everybody, but it is not of everybody. The magic of the film’s glorious specificity is how much room it allows for those profound questions of identity politics. How much of who we are is decided for us and what do we get to decide for ourselves?
Over the three chapters (named after his preteen, teenage, and adult monikers Little, Chiron, and Black) of the film’s searching, Jenkins finds satisfying conclusiveness without providing prescriptive answers making for a film that lingers on the soul for days. The intellectual meandering doesn’t result in a vague or hapless experience thanks to charged moments at nearly every turn. Masterfully shot by James Laxton, whole sequences get under your skin and stay with you, by turns incisive (like young Chiron’s panicked fleeing of bullies) or seductive (a smoking André Holland will seize your loins). Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders mold an edit that allows each chapter its own distinct rhythm while building an almost overwhelming whole.
Also distinct and almost shockingly cohesive are the three actors playing Chiron. One of Jenkins’s greatest accomplishments here is crafting one believable and consistent character over three independent performances. Alex Hibbert’s Little gives way to Chiron’s primary motivations and fears, leading to the teenaged Ashton Sanders giving him the bruised soul that perhaps is his most definitive characteristic.
But the major performance of the film is Trevante Rhodes’s adult Chiron. Much as the film is building to a head, so is the performance – something has got to give and you see it in every pained expression, every fragmented communication, each lingering glance on Rhodes. His code switching and externalized inner conflict is telling even without the preceding film, a lifetime of pain and uncertainty evident in his mask and subsequent thaw. His equally adept scene partner Holland as a former love lost is absorbingly connected, the two developing into a symbiotic screen coupling. I don’t know if I’ve seen two actors bringing out the best in eachother as much all year.
Elsewhere in the ensemble is Naomie Harris as Chiron’s addict mother Paula, delivering as much agony and inconsistencies as Chiron himself. While the screenplay (also by Jenkins, inspired by an unproduced play by Tarell McCraney) gives Paula generous detail across little screentime, it’s Harris’s full-bodied portrayal that makes her come alive. Janelle Monáe (also brilliant in the upcoming Hidden Figures) fills patience with nuance as Chiron’s pseudo-adoptive mother. Where Moonlight‘s breadth beyond its lead’s experience is in the early but comprehensive performance by Mahershala Ali. As Paula’s drug dealer and Chiron’s protector, his Juan is rife with compassion and conflict. Ali’s deep well of feeling is undeniable, gracefully lending Chiron’s story wider complexity.
What makes Moonlight an uncommon film is how it luxuriates in the subject in uncommon ways. Never too exacting to distance the audience or too reaching to lose focus, its beats lead to a consuming result that takes some time to process. Ultimately hopeful and kind, Jenkins has made a film to be cherished for its idiosyncrasies and emotions for a long time indeed. You’ll be wowed.