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I noticed while reading about “Moonlight” that, unlike most film reviews and articles, the pieces didn’t give me much sense of what the film actually is. After finally seeing it myself, I understand why — and that’s one of the reasons “Moonlight” is so special. Try as I might, I can’t seem to find the right words to describe the film, to make it tangible and comprehensible to those I might be enthusiastically recommending it to.
I could summarize the plot, but that would only give you a small fragment of the experience. I’ll try anyway. Taking place mostly in Miami, the film follows the life of Chiron, a young gay black man growing up and discovering himself. The film is split into three parts: Chiron’s early childhood, where he is referred to as “Little” (Alex Hibbert), his adolescence (Ashton Sanders) and his early adulthood, where he has chosen the name “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). Through these three stages, Chiron deals with living in a rough part of town, his emerging homosexuality and his crack addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). He receives guidance from a sympathetic drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe).
The formula sounds familiar — ‘hood melodrama meets queer coming-of-age story — and it is riddled with tropes and stereotypes. But, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, cinema isn’t what it’s about, but how it’s about it. And the how of “Moonlight” is so impressive that the film’s flaws melt away. And yet, it would be disingenuous to ignore them.
For one, the women in this film are wildly underserved. Teresa is little more than a comforting, matriarchal figure who graciously opens her home to Chiron and serves as caretaker to him and Juan. Paula gets the clichéd addict arc when she’s not acting as a force of abject terror in Chiron’s life. And for a film that seems to want to challenge mainstream cinematic norms about whose stories matter, the film at times feels too palatable, too comforting. There are moments in the first two sections that really lay it on, making you sympathize with Chiron. It pushes so hard to make you feel sorry for the poor kid that sometimes it breaks the spell the film has so expertly cast.
But even as I type these criticisms, there’s a little voice in my head contradicting them. If it feels like we’ve seen this type of story too many times before, it may be because racial/financial inequality has been a problem for so long, and we still haven’t dealt with it. The artists behind these stories are simply doing their job, reflecting the reality of the world and sharing their own experience. And the writers — Barry Jenkins, who wrote the screenplay, and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the unproduced play Jenkins’ script is based on — grew up in Miami under circumstances very similar to Chiron’s, which gives their story a ring of truth
Many have said this is a film about masculinity, sexuality, identity and the black experience. While those are all true, the film strikes me most strongly as a hopeful, humanistic and warm film about vulnerability and people’s capacity for change. It is jarring how the characters physically transform as they age through the film, which serves the film’s purpose in demonstrating how our life circumstances and our environments can radically turn us into different people. Compared to her behavior in the first parts of the film, Paula feels like a completely different woman by the film’s conclusion. And she’s played by the same woman, unlike Chiron, who’s played by three actors who are very different physically (especially when you compare Sanders and Rhodes). Kudos to Jenkins for casting three actors that still feel like they are the same young man.
But again, I still haven’t given you any idea of what the film is or what it’s like. I don’t think I or anyone else can. It is that rare, special film that is a work of pure cinema, and words will not even come close to doing it justice. It must be seen, heard and felt to be understood, to be believed. The film is gorgeously ephemeral, hazy and intangible the way memory is. I could wax poetic about the masterful music, cinematography, editing, production design and performances, but it would do them a disservice. Nor would it accurately capture how Jenkins expertly brings these elements together into a compelling whole.
I could go on, but instead I’ll do you a favor. I’ll end this review here. Because every second you’re sitting here reading this is another second you’re not in a movie theater watching “Moonlight.” Close this tab, look up the closest theater that’s showing it and order your tickets. You’ll hear a lot of hype as this film racks up numerous awards in the coming months. Believe the hype, “Moonlight” deserves it. It really is one of the year’s best films.