By Jason Abdow
The first thing that is heard when “Moonlight” starts is the sound of an old Boris Gardiner song, which was notably used to start Kendrick Lamar’s critically and commercially acclaimed 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly.” The decision to start this film in the same way as that album seems to be intentional, as both pieces of art are largely focused on self-acceptance of oneself within your community. While I initially went into this movie expecting to get a powerful, hard-hitting film with sharp social commentary, I instead got a more personal, introspective character study on the film’s central subject, Chiron.
Chiron’s story is told to us in three parts, all focusing on different moments of his life. In these moments we witness Chiron growing up in a seemingly exclusively minority area in Miami as he struggles with his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris), a lack of friends and his own self-discovery. The initial premise would have you believe this movie is more focused on the weight of all this drama. For the most part, however, director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins decides to just quietly observe Chiron who feels more like an observer of the world he lives in.
The first section of this movie works effectively as an introduction to Chiron’s story, or Little as he is referred to here. Alex Hibbert, who plays Little in this segment, does surprisingly subtle work for a child actor. His character is quiet, Hibbert only speaks a couple lines of dialogue, meaning most of the acting is done with his mannerisms and it is simply remarkable. Also worthy of praise is Mahershala Ali, playing a drug dealer and father-figure to Little, providing him with a place to stay with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Despite a relatively short amount of time on-screen, Ali painted a complex image of a man who was genuinely good, even as he lives a life of crime.
The second section, focused on a 16-year-old Chiron, was my personal favorite because of the drama it contained. Ashton Sanders, who plays Chiron, gave the best performance of the three actors portraying this character. Sanders is able to play the quiet and emotional sides of the character excellently and definitely handles the difficult role well. We watch as he is bullied by his peers and is continually beaten down by them, and his mother. Naomie Harris also has several shining moments here, as her drug addiction has gotten visibly worse. The section ends in a particularly intense way, easily the tensest moment of the film, making it stand out all around.
The final section follows an adult version of Chiron, referred to as Black (Trevante Rhodes). Not to spoil much of the story I will just say this section has the least going on, yet felt the most revealing about the protagonist. We get a beautiful scene between Black and his mother which showcases both Rhodes’ and Harris’ incredible acting talents. The majority of the section following this is between Black and Kevin (André Holland), who was a classmate of Chiron’s throughout the film. Holland’s role, while not as heavy, is still filled with understated emotion that is delivered amazingly. Rhodes is also phenomenal, capturing the character laid out in the first two sections and expanding on it by having the character feel genuinely more mature.
From a technical aspect, this film is nearly flawless. The editing is Oscar worthy, as the movie embraces some unique editing techniques while also telling this quiet story in a fast-paced way, never feeling a second longer than it needs to. While occasionally self-indulgent, the cinematography by James Laxton is creative, using several close-up and intrusive shots at the beginning, and widening with each segment. It is a subtle decision that is made, presumably to symbolize Chiron’s wider perspectives of the world, but it pays off well. Nicholas Britell’s score, which is reliant on wild strings, adds to the intimate and artistic nature of the film, as well.
This is a movie for film lovers. It will likely be too quiet for casual moviegoers, especially considering how little actually happens in the movie. But for those looking to see something that studies various complex characters and witness some of the years finest acting will not be disappointed with what “Moonlight” has to offer. Since I have seen this it has only grown on me the more I think about and analyze all the subtleties of it. I am sure “cinema snobs” will be talking about every moment of this movie for years to come, and those are some conversations I am eager to have. If you think this is a movie for you, check it out, because “Moonlight” is truly one of the greatest movies of the year.