Moonlight heightens intimacy with exquisitely tempered cinematic technique — a film review

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The unanimity of praise for Moonlight has been deafening. Along with the critical praise, the film’s limited early release opened incredibly strong, an amazing accomplishment for an indie film shot in Miami. If you have heard about this movie, you already know its strength (watch for it also come Oscar season). In this review, I hope to try to skip the superlatives other than to say Moonlight is indeed a beautiful movie, and note as quickly briefly as I can what writer-director Barry Jenkins has done with the heart-rending play written by Tarell McCraney.

The film presents a gay black man growing up in a real-life destitute neighborhood of Miami called Liberty City, where both the film’s director and playwright grew up in the ‘80s. Located only two miles west of the Atlantic coast, this ‘hood lies on the west side of Interstate 95, that terrible highway credited for turning the once historic area into a blighted neighborhood of little opportunity for the area’s predominantly black residents. The film is divided into three neat chapters, “i. little”, “ii. chiron” and “iii. black,” referring to the predominant moniker of the film’s main character at various ages, in each section. All three are played by different actors, Alex R. Hibbert plays the 9-year-old version of Chiron, Ashton Sanders the high school version and Trevante Rhodes is the adult.

Moonlight

In a world that doesn’t like to see anyone break its informal set of rules, men are only allowed to be manly. As children, they grow up learning to connect physically through wrestling or fists, and cinematographer James Laxton is right there with them. With both handheld and Steadicam shots he stays close to the action, be it intense rotating work or still shots that sometimes feature the actors in the shared leading roles staring straight into the lens, pulling the audience in. It’s constant intimacy, and the camera often finds its resting place at its subject’s shoulder level, either from behind or from the front, again bringing in the audience into the perspective of Chiron.

This intimacy is never over-stylized via deep focus. Instead, this person exists in sharp relief to his surroundings. You get both a clear view of Miami, from its bright white sky to its restless ocean, to the neighborhood where the boys both play and push away Chiron, except one — Kevin (also played by three wonderful actors, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland). Because Chiron can’t admit his feelings aloud, he internalizes. All three of the Chiron actors step up in their silence because Chiron is doomed to keep his feelings within.

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There’s a disturbing natural balance to the conflicted messages of this world. Though a sympathetic drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) takes Chiron under his wing after the child is chased by some kids into an abandoned apartment, Juan still casually diminishes the boy by calling him “little man” in his gruff, chill voice and demeanor. It comes from a warm place, but the name still references weakness in the face of the expectation of what it is to be masculine. The worst for Chiron, however, comes when he is a teen, where Chiron endures ostracizing and vicious bullying from former childhood friends who have dubbed him a “faggot,” going back to elementary school.

Pardon one more superlative, but the soundtrack is extraordinary. The movie offers smart song choices, from the film’s first diegetic song, Boris Gradiner’s “Every Nigger is a Star,” a song that ironically (in the context of the film) celebrates individuality in the face of prejudice, to its last, a chopped and screwed remix of “Classic Man” that deepens the voice of Jidenna to enhance his voice’s manliness to almost extreme caricature.

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On the extradiegetic choices, representing the internal side of the characters, the soundtrack includes songs like “Cucurrucucú Paloma” by Caetano Veloso, a classic go-to in queer cinema, not to mention a beautiful classical score by Nicholas Britell. Across the film, Britell’s delicate, patient minor key melody reappears in varied forms, from slower tempo to instruments that alternate in the lead melody, and ultimately building toward a fuller, lusher piece by film’s end, reflective of a slight change yet continued tumult within Chiron.

Moonlight is one of those films that can blend stylistic flair, from camerawork to score, with an earthbound realism that speaks to the varied levels of experience to be a human being in a world of socially constructed codes that shred our inner selves in the face of prejudice and shallow expectations. The film does not lack for hope, though, ending with a pitch perfect scene that speaks to tapping into that great power we all have within us to accept who we are and damn the outside world around us.

For more on this movie, read our interview with the film’s director, author and its two lead actors:

Moonlight filmmakers talk shooting beauty of Miami and connecting with material on human level

Hans Morgenstern

Moonlight runs 110 minutes and is rated R (but nothing so terrible that young teens can’t handle). It opens in our South Florida area this Friday, Oct. 28, in the indie art house O Cinema Wynwood where McCraney will be participate in a post-film discussion after the 7pm screenings on Friday & Saturday (the screenings are SOLD OUT, however). Friday, Independent Ethos contributor Juan Barquin will host the session and on Saturday it will be Miami Herald’s Rene Rodriguez’s turn. The film is also at Regal South Beach and AMC Aventura Mall. The film will be expanding into West Palm Beach/Boca Raton and nationwide next Friday, Nov. 4. For update theaters and locations, visit this link.  A24 provided all images used in this post and invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2016 by Independent Ethos. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

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