Directed by: Barry Jenkins || Produced by: Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner
Screenplay by: Barry Jenkins, Tarell Alvin McCraney || Starring: Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert
Music by: Nicholas Britell || Cinematography: James Laxton || Edited by: Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 111 minutes
Perhaps the only high-profile drama this year that has a snowball’s chance in hell of beating Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016) at the 89th Academy Awards is Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, a coming-of-age drama about an underprivileged black youth growing up gay in south Miami. If that description sounds like ripe formula for Oscar-bait following a year that included an infamous gay nightclub shooting in that same city, as well as the rise of Donald Trump, then congratulations, because your nose for trendy Oscar-bait may be as good as mine.
In all seriousness, Moonlight is an awards-friendly drama in the vein of 12 Years a Slave (2013) rather than Dallas Buyer’s Club (2013); its political message is subservient to its cinematographic craft and universal emotional connection. The film is told in a three-act structure chronicling the life of one Chiron, a poor, shy, and soft-spoken child who hides from neighborhood bullies in abandoned housing projects and finds more parental support from local drug-dealers than he does from his abusive single-mother. Chiron, played as a young boy, teenager, and adult by actors Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, respectively, develops as a character along a predictable path, and his maturation is more notable for its quaint familiarity and realism than an otherwise significant, memorable arc. Everything in this story unfolds in a predictable manner, with a satisfying, if somewhat ambiguous ending whose happiness feels earned.
Moonlight’s primary appeal lies in its direction and James Laxton’s beautiful cinematography. Comparisons to Steve McQueen are appropriate,but Jenkins balances intimate, handheld close-ups with a wider variety of long-shots, flowing SteadiCam long-takes, slow-motion photography, and restrained dolly-shots, making for a more versatile cinematographic feature as well as a far less claustrophobic one. As the film’s title would imply, its lighting scheme is brilliant, emphasizing the soft contrast of shadows during a full moon, but also the piercing sunlight of daytime Miami. This dynamic yet subtle visual style is balanced by a quiet soundtrack and brilliant sound editing, which juxtaposes the peaceful sound mixing of waves splashing ashore with the brutal sound FX of Sanders being beaten into the concrete ground by a former friend. Moonlight emphasizes the importance of filmmaking basics (i.e. lighting, camerawork, sound-editing) like few other dramas this year, let alone ones built for Oscar-season.
The most memorable piece of photography in the entire film is arguably the film’s opening, which features a prolonged SteadiCam shot that follows Mahershala Ali during his daily routine as her checks on his “employees” working corners. One notable element common in popular cinema used here is the often annoying “spinning camera,” through which Jenkins emphasizes repetitiveness instead of excitement. The camera circles Ali, his corner-man, and an addict before the former breaks off and stumbles upon Alex Hibbert, as do we, the audience. Themes communicated visually — let’s hear it for them, folks!
As for its cast, Moonlight focuses more on its supporting figures than its main character, at times, given lauded castmembers like Mahershala Ali, Naomi Harris, and Janelle Monae. Chiron is fleshed out by all of his capable actors, but feels almost like a placeholder for the audience to experience his upbringing, to re-experience the universal growing pains of underappreciated children everywhere, regardless of background or sexuality. Individually, Ali, Harris, Monae, and costars Andre Holland, Jerrell Jerome, and Jayden Piner (who play adult, teen, and child-character Kevin, Chiron’s lifelong friend, respectively), have modest screentime, but collectively paint a vivid, memorable picture of a community, which harbors and, for better or worse, influences our protagonist’s childhood.
Moonlight boasts few, if any, notable weaknesses. The only complaints I can foresee certain viewers having with it are its deliberate pace, but its three-act structure feels patient, not slow, and its total runtime is only 111 minutes. In an age where blockbusters frequently break 2 hours and 30 minutes, generic, simplistic comedies surpass two-hours, and young-adult novel adaptations are split across multiple theatrical installments, an introspective character-study that doesn’t overstay its welcome is a pleasant reminder of effective, restrained editing.
Perhaps the most flattering thing I can say about this film is how it feels just as emotional and personable as a formulaic blockbuster engineered to tug at mass audiences’ heart strings. Through a combination of strong, stylized direction and an effective script, Jenkins crafts genuine drama and relatable characters with nary an action scene nor manipulative humanitarian disaster in sight. I believe the word “humanity” is thrown around too much in film criticism, but for this particular movie, a basic, relatable theme of humanism is sprinkled throughout, whether our main character is taken under the wing of a non-traditional male mentor, bashing a chair over a social tormentor’s head, or flashing his chrome in his muscle car’s rear-view mirror.
Moonlight is altogether a winner for this year’s awards season, a surprisingly deep, thoughtful, and well directed sociopolitical drama that understands the importance of filmmaking craft to show its sociopolitical message, not tell it. Barry Jenkins may be a future director to watch, given his patient approach to editing, lighting, and overall cinematographic craftsmanship, in addition to his admirable direction of a diverse, memorable cast. While its premise might hint at heavy-handed dramatic cinema like Hidden Figures (2016) or boring photographs-of-people-talking like Spotlight (2015), Moonlight ends up being one of the most cinematic films of the year, even more so than the far more energetic, upbeat, and loud La La Land. How’s that for a surprise ending to 2016?
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Barry Jenkins understands what story he wants to tell and conveys an emotional yet understated coming-of-age tale that speaks more in environmental sounds, slow camera movements, and short-lived supporting performances than conventional underdog narratives or overblown character arcs. The film isn’t exactly entertaining, per se, but it’s as empathetic as any film, relying on cinematography to connect viewers with a more relatable underdog than most of us are used to seeing on the big screen.
? I always wondered what people did with their grills when they ate. Now I know.