Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review: "Moonlight"

Director: Barry Jenkins
Runtime: 110 minutes

The events that would otherwise consume a standard coming-of-age tale - deaths, brushes with the law, drug addiction - all happen off screen in Barry Jenkins' Moonlight. Jenkins' adaptation of Terrell McCraney's play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" is narratively uneventful on the surface. And yet, for all of the radical events and cultural shifts that happen offscreen or in the background, what's most arresting is the apparent simplicity of the three-act story. Like its central character, Moonlight often hesitates to speak, yet the roiling emotions under the surface nevertheless make themselves known and beautifully felt.

Set over three defining periods in the life of Chiron (Alex Hibbert/Ashton Sanders/Trevante Rhodes), Moonlight uses its intimate specificity to construct a mesmerizingly textured essay on identity, masculinity, sexuality, and self worth. Chiron's youth is littered with elements that could easily come off as cliche (an abusive mother, bullies, drug dealers, gangs), but are so precisely inserted into the story that they all feel vital to defining who Chiron is and who he'll become. Jenkins refuses to turn up the volume of his story and his protagonist's state of mind. Instead, he acts much like Chiron's father figure Juan (House of Cards' Mahershala Ali), providing gentle guidance without ever intruding.

Chiron's story unfolds over such a short period of time (each section comprises only a few days), yet it registers deeply. It is both a slice of life, and an intimately epic portrait of young adulthood and hidden desires. Though its setting (not to mention ethnic makeup) could not be more different, Moonlight in many ways resembles last year's Carol. It is a film of stolen glances, barely perceptible reactions, and simple gestures that come loaded with volumes of feeling that defy articulation. In the middle section, featuring the one instance of sexual exploration, Jenkins' conveys the confused, heated passion of a first kiss not by jamming the camera in the actors' faces, but by focusing on teenage Chiron's hand clenching the sand underneath it. If at first it seems a bit distant, give it time - the final third has the hushed tension of the best tales of "forbidden" romance.

And despite the similarities shared with Haynes' masterful film, Jenkins' direction puts its own firm stamp on the thematic material. Mixing fluid long takes (the opening shot practically involves the camera making figure eights around the actors) with jumbled, earthy handheld work, cinematographer James Laxton gorgeously captures the Miami setting in all its washed out pastels and pulsing neons. Whether showing the vivid motion of young boys playing, or the solemn stillness of an uncomfortable conversation, Jenkins and Laxtons images are a beautiful mix of post-card prettiness and rapturous mundanity.

The hushed tones of the sound work are equally critical, effortlessly putting us in Chiron's stiflingly introverted headspace. Chiron's seeming lack of place in the world is magnified by the distancing effect of the muted sounds that make their way in from the world at large. The minute sonic details of the real world are, instead, supplanted by a small soundtrack and Nicholas Britell's achingly beautiful string score.

Yet even though there are moments where the stylistic flourishes threaten to overstep, Jenkins keeps his performers front and center, perfectly positioned within his artful abstractions. The three actors who play both Chiron and on/off friend Kevin (Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/The Knick's Andre Holland) are all wondrous in their own ways. But while the youngest actors often play second fiddle to the adults like Chiron's mom (Naomie Harris), Juan, and Theresa (singer Janelle Monae), their development never loses focus. In truth, they are a bit blank, in the way young kids are; they're still waiting to discover themselves while being shaped by those around them.

Moonlight is, in many ways, open-ended, yet it's also a masterclass of how to fragment a narrative and have each section perfectly build on what preceded it. It's not a fast process, but as boyhood becomes adolescence, and adolescence becomes manhood, the characters only become richer. When Chiron and Kevin reunite as adults in a Miami diner, Jenkins' film reaches full bloom, and it's magnificent to watch. Rhodes and Holland are spectacular together, and I wouldn't have minded watching their segment continue on for another two hours. But just as soon as Moonlight reaches another moment of dramatic intensity, he lets it slip back into the steady flow of time. In watching these characters transform, we see how they evolve as people, with entire lives stretching out both behind them and off into the distant future. I can only thank Mr. Jenkins and his actors for allowing me to have even a few disparate chapters of their stories.

Grade: A

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