In Barry Jenkins' artful and quietly masterful Moonlight, incidents shift like smoothly-rolling waves. There is a scene early where a man (Mahershala Ali) is teaching a young boy, Chiron (Alex Hibbert), to swim. He lifts his head above the surface of the water like a newborn and then shows him how to crawl. Water is a symbol of rebirth in the three stages we glimpse of Chrion's life--whether it's the dusk and night-time quiet of the ocean in the film's evocative Florida setting or an icy draw in a bathroom sink. Throughout, images are kept close, waist-up, as if we are swimming through them right above the surface of the sea. These moments are melded together beautifully by editors Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon. The cinematography by James Laxton grows more and more expressive, intimate and visually distinct throughout, as if we are experiencing the heightening of a young man's perceptions of his world as he ages.
In simplistic terms, Moonlight is about survival, about staying afloat, and adapting to environments through spirit and body. We watch Chrion grow from a wounded, quiet child into a wounded, quiet young man into a wounded, quiet adult in various states of physicality. A sexuality thwarted, a life undone. There are issues of queerness, blackness, of mass incarceration which are pivotal to the story-lines and the fates of these characters; but they are organic to the story and the situations not forced--they smolder like a flame slowly devouring paper.
Jenkins' adaptation of Tarell Alvin McCraney's play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue," eschews the use of frequent flash-backing and deftly separates the film into three, fleeting chapters. The performances of Chrion are richly layered by a trio of actors (Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), all excellent and potent. We see subtle reflections of one another in each turn, the way their eyelids move or the where they tend to land their stares. The rest of the cast, Ali as an early mentor, singer Janelle Monáe as his girlfriend, and Naomie Harris as Chrion's drug-addicted mother (a supremely difficult part and the only one we see in all three stages), are remarkably strong. Like the performances, the film feels urgent and bracing but tender and sensitive.
A diner scene backed by Barbara Lewis's "Hello Stranger" is one of the most crisp and fervent uses of a song since Claire Denis's use of the Commodore's "Nightshift" in 35 Shots of Rum. Watching the Rhodes and André Holland (also great) in the moment is an electric heartache. It could be off-putting to praise a production company and marketing campaign, but I admire the way A24 has refused to have this movie get lost in a plethora of streaming choices and showier pictures. They are creating unmissable movie-going, a way to witness great art in shared experience. I was compelled calmly throughout Moonlight, but hours afterwards, as if coming off a long ocean swim, I felt the ache of what I had witnessed, the rush of water in my ears. ****