Moonlight is a strange mixture of the old and the new, offering plenty that we’ve seen before while pushing boundaries that too often remain rigid in mainstream films.
Director Barry Jenkins begins in the style of a gator-state Ophüls, weaving woozy tracking shots around the all-too familiar tableau of backstreet drug deals. He brings something new to this exchange, both visually and with the intriguing character of Juan (Mahershala Ali). A drug dealer with a soft side (or maybe just a guilty conscience), Juan takes Chiron, the young lead played first by Alex R. Hibbert, under his wing, offering an attitude torn between pragmatic criminality and a desire to do good. He’s one of the film’s most intriguing and complex characters, played with a world-weary charm by Ali. It’s a shame he features so briefly.
Split into three parts, the film’s subsequent two chapters falter after such a strong start. Everything that felt fresh and original fades away to be replaced by stereotypes and anticlimax. This is Chiron’s story, but he’s not a compelling enough character to hold the film together. The performances – from three different actors – are all decent, but the character is underwritten. Near-mute and permanently withdrawn, it’s hard to find an emotional connection, particularly in the third act reunion which is pitched as more significant than it feels.
Barry Jenkins has deservedly earned a lot of hype for his direction. He and DP James Laxton deliver sensory shot-making; a poem of sand and sweat and sunlight. His world is full of black bodies beating to their own rhythms, negotiating their own internal politics. He’s not afraid to play out scenes with long silences either, allowing the drama to occur organically.
It’s a shame that the story, which began feeling like a small-town epic, dies away into something so insubstantial.
CAST: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, Alex R. Hibbert, Jharrel Jerome
DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins
WRITERS: Barry Jenkins (screenplay), Tarell McCraney (story)
SYNOPSIS: A timeless story of human connection and self-discovery, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighbourhood of Miami.