It would be clichéd to begin a review of Moonlight by referencing the fresh struggles faced by black culture in the US in 2016, and (although that would be a relevant statement) Moonlight doesn’t deserve to be within 10 feet of a cliché. Barry Jenkins’ exceptional second feature, which tells the story of a gay black boy growing up in Miami, subverts expectations and Hollywood norms at every available opportunity, telling a completely fresh story with tremendous energy, and concurrently coming in under 2 hours.
Moonlight follows the impossibly quiet Chiron from childhood to youth to adulthood in three distinct acts, played by three different- but equally sensational- actors. The film’s treatment of the passing of time, with enigmatically-gaping holes in the narrative, finds a haunting middle-ground between Boyhood and Benjamin Button, while the shifts in Chiron’s personality as he discovers his homosexuality and works to repress it are depicted with stunning sensitivity. Jenkins ignores the norms of both the typical “black drama” and the “gay drama”, examining the nuances of masculinity and male relationships from a perspective that feels unstained by derivation. As Chiron’s drug-addict mother, Naomie Harris gives the finest performance of her career, while Mahershala Ali makes a huge impact in just a few scenes as Chiron’s mentor Juan, teaching the shy boy to swim and answering his heartbreaking question about the word ‘faggot’ with a thoughtfulness rarely seen in cinematic depictions of Miami drug dealers. As the sole figure of sexual interest in Chiron’s life, André Holland is a standout, physically embodying the sadness of the film’s world with little dialogue.
In addition to the human drama, the film is simply mesmerising in its execution: James Laxton’s sun-drenched visuals make every daytime shot feel inherently Miami-based, while the titular moonlight of Chiron’s evening adventures contributes an extra layer of beauty to the story. Meanwhile, Jenkins opts for the operatic music of Nicholas Britell over the more obvious hip-hop soundtrack, merely another of the unexpected directorial decisions that makes Moonlight such a deeply affecting, remarkably original film.