Barry Jenkins | 111 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 15 / R
Last year’s (eventual) Best Picture winner could pithily be described as “Boyhood with a black kid”, and I’m sure it has been plenty of times, but that does a disservice to Moonlight’s own unique qualities.
That said, it’s not difficult to draw obvious comparisons between the two. Both follow the lives of an American boy as he grows up across a decade-and-a-bit. Whereas Boyhood was shot in real-time with the same actor, Moonlight drops in on its central character, Chiron, at ages 11 (played by Alex Hibbert), 17 (Ashton Sanders), and 25 (Trevante Rhodes). Both films see the lead trying to figure out his place in the world, while also dealing with an absent father, surrogate father figures, and a mother often preoccupied with her own problems. But whereas Boyhood frequently felt like a ramshackle collection of vignettes that together created a loose portrait of a childhood, Moonlight is a bit more focused: Chiron is both bullied and gay, and how he deals with these things gives a shape to the narrative that Boyhood seemed to lack.
Much of the credit for creating that smooth storyline belongs… well, with writer-director Barry Jenkins, of course (and at this juncture I must shoehorn in a mention of his charming Criterion closet video — if you didn’t love the guy before, I’m sure you will after watching that). But it also belongs with the three actors playing Chiron, who not only chart his development over time, but also make him a highly relatable protagonist in a very subtle way. The connection the viewer builds with him comes from the understated power of their acting — at all ages, Chiron expresses a lot without saying much, which only serves to draw us closer to him as we feel like we understand him nonetheless.
The quality of the performances from Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes is only emphasised when you learn that the three actors never met, never rehearsed together, never even watched each other’s work. That makes it all the more remarkable that they share something — in their eyes, or the way they hold themselves, or the hesitancy with which they connect to other people. It’s especially apparent in Rhodes: at first his version of Chiron seems completely different to the earlier two, but then we realise that’s just a front, and the real Chiron he’s buried comes to the fore when he reconnects with an old friend. From that point, he’s so like Hibbert and Sanders that it’s almost uncanny.
Another thing the film handles with admirable subtly is the time jumps. Numerous subplots continue across all three sections, but rather than bluntly spell out what’s changed between each, Jenkins lets us infer it; and because we’re only getting a snapshot each time, some of these arcs (in particular that of Chiron’s mother, played by Naomie Harris) are contained as much in the gaps of what we’re shown as they are in what’s actually presented on screen. That we can pick up on what’s happened off screen is as much a tribute to Jenkins and his cast as is the quality of what we do see. And although the characters may change and develop off screen, what we witness each time is almost like the inciting incident that leads (in)directly to the next part of the story — the effects of actions are magnified over time, and the jumps mean you go directly from where something begins to where it ends up.
In telling the story of a young gay black man, Moonlight is exposing a world and lifestyle that’s not seen much, or at all, in (mainstream) cinema — that is, being black and gay. Or just being gay, really. Or black, to an extent. There’s an inherent positivity in getting such untold stories out into the open. Nonetheless, there’s a certain universality to Chiron’s experience. Lest one thinks that’s just a straight white guy trying to make everything relate to him (and I’ve seen others be accused of such appropriation), Jenkins observes it too in the film’s Blu-ray extras. A film doesn’t need that element of recognisability — there’s nothing wrong with illuminating a lesser-seen facet of the world; depicting a unique life experience — but Moonlight’s shy love story speaks across boundaries of race, gender, and sexual orientation.
Moonlight is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.