Moonlight ★★★★

Originally written for the Quince Orchard High School newspaper, The Prowler

Moonlight has claimed the throne for critic’s darling of the year—after every festival screening it had over the past few months, critics raved, eventually earning the movie a 99/100 on Metacritic. Finally, escaping the online reviews, I attended the local premiere of the film, and though it’s a superb picture, I can’t help but admit I’m a bit disappointed.

Spanning the first decades of a young black man’s life, Moonlight tells the age-old tale of knowing and accepting who you are, but director Barry Jenkins presents the story in such a contemporary manner that calling anything about it “age-old” seems criminal. Over three chapters (childhood, teenage life, and early adulthood), the protagonist, Chiron, struggles with his homosexuality and drug-riddled mother in a subtle story of interaction.

On a technical level, Barry Jenkin’s sophomoric film achieves perfection. The color—easily the most vital aspect in Moonlight’s form of storytelling—amazed me more and more with each shot; formed around the film’s source material, an unproduced play titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, cinematographer James Laxton and production designer Hannah Beachler scatter blues and greens all throughout every frame, contrasting the darker reds and yellows that appear as Chiron faces adversity.

There’s more to the film than just color, though. Laxton’s cinematography—naturalistic yet complex—brings the simple, conversation-based nature of Jenkins’ script into a new territory: observation. Like our quiet protagonist, Laxton’s photography takes a laissez faire approach for the most part. Similar to many great characters, however, Chiron develops as he continues along his journey, so Laxton does the same—by the final scene, we aren’t just watching what happens: we are confronting it.

The camerawork, as I mentioned, can be very complex, so I was consistently amazed by how seamless everything felt. Editors Joi McMilon and Nat Sanders built the dazed atmosphere of Moonlight the same way Laxton did, but far more subtly. In order to place the viewer in Chiron’s state of mind, key pieces of visual information were hidden by edits until absolutely necessary. An early example of this is Chiron’s mother, who very obviously has sketchy business going on in her house, though we don’t know what it is yet. Instead of finding out her job through expository dialogue, the editors show us one thing for a split second: a bedroom lit by a red lightbulb. Although we don’t get pure confirmation that his mother is a prostitute until about halfway through the film, this sly edit grants the audience all the information we need in a subtle fashion, similar to how the at-the-time young Chiron views his world.

The one problem I had with Moonlight is that there simply isn’t enough to make too large of an impact on me. If the runtime had been extended by 30 minutes, and Jenkins added in a few more scenes at the end of each chapter, the film may have delivered the kick it so desperately tries to land. There are many unfathomably visceral scenes, but what’s in between them is what needed to be extended. Everything in the movie works, but I just wish there was more.

Some things I want to briefly mention are the incredible acting, unbelievably perfect dialogue, and extraordinary sound design. The score works really well with the tone, and when used, the soundtrack delivers, too.

Moonlight should be required viewing for all teenagers. Its themes are ones anyone can relate to and probably benefit from. If nothing else, Barry Jenkins’ movie will give you a viewing experience like very few others.

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