One of the many reasons we go to the movies is to experience a life that isn’t our own for a couple of hours. Often this experience is a form of escapism, but it can also be educational or empathic. We see someone else’s struggles and successes and we can imagine ourselves in their position, or we can cheer them on, or we can sit back and analyze their successes and failures and apply that to our own world. Moonlight, the movie based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is the very rare film that manages to take the character piece one step further and lets us inhabit the life of its focal character, not just allowing us to understand them, but if you allow yourself to actually become that person, in this case Chiron a.k.a Little a.k.a. Black, for a short but immensely meaningful period of time.
Moonlight manages to do this by using every tool at the film director’s (an almost sure to be Academy Award nominated Barry Jenkins) disposal to give us this intense immersion into Chiron’s life. First there is the astounding cast. Chiron (pronounced Shy-Rone) himself is played by three different actors – Alex R. Hibbert plays “Little”, Chiron as a child, Ashton Sanders is Chiron during his high school years, and Trevante Rhodes is the adult Chiron “Black”. Apparently these three actors never studied each other, never saw what the other two were doing with the role, and so brought their own fresh interpretation to the part. It’s a testament to their talent, and the talent of Jenkins as director and writer that these three performances fit together perfectly, all seemed like the same person, but did truly seem like that person at a very distinct part of their life. A big part of how they were able to accomplish this, I think, is through the fact that Chiron is a very quiet character. He says very little, so most of what he communicates is through facial expressions, body language, and the actions he takes. These three actors, and really the entire cast, manage to say more through glances and stances than many movie characters manage to say in pages of dialogue. They convey things that in daily life we only get from our closest of friends and family, thus making these characters extremely intimate.
Then we have the incredible writing by Tarell Alvin McCraney in his original story and by Barry Jenkins in his screenplay adaptation. Since it’s a story originally made for the stage, it uses a structure which divides the story into three very distinct acts. Using this structure we are allowed to experience Chiron’s transformation from child to adult naturally, logically, and, at the risk of overusing the word, intimately. Chiron, being a very quiet person, spends most of his time listening to those around him and reacting to the choices they make. Jenkin’s screenplay somehow makes all of this both relatable enough that we can attach Chiron’s experiences to our own, but foreign enough to render it a brand new experience. We see the kindness of strangers, the failings of family, the letdown of failed expectations, and the surprise of our own unexplored feelings all through Chiron’s experiences and it flows perfectly never letting us truly breathe except at the start of each act break but never overwhelming us to the point that we need to stop to catch a breath. It’s an experience that creeps up on you, and surprises you with its depths that you don’t realize you are caught up in immediately.
The subtle brilliance of Moonlight, though, and the piece of the puzzle that allows all the rest to really work is the amazing cinematography by James Laxton. It doesn’t have the in-your-face artistic beauty of a The Revenant, the discipline of Children of Men, or the incredible trickery of Birdman, what Laxton gives us in his cinematography is a window into the mind and emotions of Chiron in a way just performance and script can’t. If Chiron is concentrating the point of view is rock steady and sharply focused, if he’s swimming the camera bobs and is half underwater itself, someone is on drugs the camera loses focus and can’t keep track of what it is meant to be looking at. Without Laxton’s camera Moonlight would still be an excellent character piece, and still one of the best movies of the year, but it’s his astonishing use of point of view that truly puts Moonlight over the top as a work of art that is not only one of the best films of this year, but one of the best character dramas ever put to screen period. It’s his his work that transforms Moonlight from a film you experience into a film you actually inhabit.
Needless to say, Moonlight is a film I believe everyone must see. There will be, and have been, films this year with more important themes, though the themes given to us here are still quite weighty and meaningful, and there will be movies with more entertaining stories, but there will be no other film this year, nor in nearly any other year, that can place you so firmly, so intimately, so subtly, and so emotionally into the life of another human being and let you experience an existence as someone other than yourself. That may be the most important and most amazing thing a film can do, and that is what Moonlight does.
Rating: 9.4 out of 10