by Toby Woollaston
“Who is you, man?” — a question posed to the protagonist of Barry Jenkins’ latest feature film, Moonlight. Issues of “identity” are often explored in film, but few offer such a fresh and unique take on the topic as Moonlight. Jenkins both directed and adapted the screenplay from Tarell McCraney’s original story “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”. It’s a shame they changed the title because it succinctly sums up the central metaphor to this film — that is, how you are perceived through the critical lens of others. More-so, how others will always try to define you.
The film is presented in three acts spanning the formative years of Chiron, an African-American, from childhood through adolescence to adulthood. Growing up in a rough neighbourhood, his journey of self-discovery deals with universal themes of identity, sexuality, family, and most of all, masculinity. He discovers from an early age that certain feelings have no place in the hostile environment he lives in, and finds himself constantly on the outer. Chiron struggles to come to terms with his sexuality and his place in the world, all the while managing his drug addled mother (played by Naomie Harris).
Although such environments and topics often lend themselves to gritty social realism, Jenkins has instead opted to tell Chiron’s story with a vivid impressionistic style. The result is more akin to Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild and presents a very visual film that is striking but also utilises quiet moments and an economy of dialogue. Cinematographer James Laxton has done a wonderful job of getting his camera to tell Chiron’s story. Skin tones are exquisitely lit and the beats of camera movement match the incredible musical score by Nicholas Britell (Whiplash, 12 Years a Slave). The result is a sensory experience that had me spellbound.
Magical qualities are consistently present in all three performances of Chiron’s character, despite being played by three actors of different age and body shape. Director Jenkins explains that during the process of auditions he focussed on expression through the eyes; “find the eyes and you’ll see the soul, and if the soul is the same, then the audience will follow the character”. In actors Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes he found the same soul through three sets of eyes. And indeed, I did follow their journey as one.
Moonlight is one of those rare movies that just doesn’t take a wrong step. It is an astounding piece of cinema that compassionately taps into a facet of American life that is not often explored.
Rating: 5 perfect eyes
You can see the published review here