Moonlight ★★★★★

"Well, what did you expect?"

I waited a long time for Moonlight. Or at least, it feels like I did. Australia received the film after a (seemingly endless) delay, trailing behind its intensely-buzzed American release. It was a sad wait; the trailer affected me in ways most finished films haven't. "Why this one?" my mother asked at some point. She was (and still is) surprised I was so drawn to this, but it always felt like a film up my alley. A film bathed in colour. A film celebrating communities and the individuals within them. A film with power and resonance. I saw Moonlight on my birthday, January 26th, to justify the delay and make it feel a little more special. I had concerns going in: one, that I was too late to the party, having rolled past the peak of my anticipation; and two, that disappointment was inbound. But even from the moment Boris Gardiner played over the A24 motion graphic, my expectations were met.

It was exactly what I waited for.

I did so much preliminary reading, however, that I'm struggling to add anything constructive to the discussion. All I can do is reiterate. Barry Jenkins – well, everybody, but especially Jenkins – has created a tender triptych, navigating an endless sea with a man in the middle. You might know his names. Little. Chiron. Black. Each designed to belong to their respective chapters (i., ii. and iii.), but really, these names fold into each other. He is born Chiron; he is desperate to shake that very fact. His race is embedded within him and the narrative; the pressures of Liberty City serve as silent antagonistic forces. Even as he emerges physically transformed in the third chapter, it reverberates Little, a deeply lonely figure producing a childhood imitation.

(An aside: I'm infinitely fascinated that Jenkins adapted Tarell McCraney's unpublished play into this because of their shared life experiences, imbuing the story with authenticity and deeply personal foundations. So much respect from my end.)

I’ll admit, this isn’t a wholly unique film. It utilises a centuries-old structure, tackling the elements one would expect from a bildungsroman, but Jenkins finds new ways to contextualise them through his sympathy, his experience, his quiet subversions. Moonlight's central concerns – identity, sexuality, masculinity and impoverishment – have been wonderfully explored by others already, but I just love the film's approach to everything it addresses. It encourages empathy. It asks you for forgiveness. It actively combats stereotypes. It's frank, but it's not cynical. For all of its weight, it ultimately becomes hopeful. Though I've read criticism contending this proclaims its own importance, I don't think it does. I think it strikes such an amazing chord that it becomes important. At least on a personal level.

Mahershala Ali's Juan might be the best microcosm of the film's compassionate approach. Ali's performance is nothing short of masterful, his charm so infectious that I smile just thinking about it. I got the most out of the first chapter, and I owe a lot to Juan's amazing presence for that. Just as the smiles appeared throughout, tears appeared throughout thanks to Nicholas Brittel's score (it's been making me cry since August). The isolated power of his music is incredible; the End Credits Suite played over nothing but scrolling text, but still it obliterated me. The repetitive nature of Chiron's theme is harrowing in its commitment to Jenkins' structure and thematics, the score chopping and screwing itself until it's as much of a brooding shell as Black is.

I find myself siding with readings of Chiron as a blank slate, but as a positive rather than negative critique. He's been stripped of his individuality by external sources (the weight of his mother's addiction, the schoolyard torment, the lack of acceptance towards his sexuality) so everything becomes internal. The blankness is cruel – Chiron can rarely penetrate it – and becomes one of the most affecting elements of the film. I know sadness. I know numbness. I know anxiety. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes convey them wrenchingly. In a way, it feels like Chiron's actual story only begins when the film cuts to credits; we've witnessed the most difficult slices of his existence so that he may now be free of pain. I can definitely understand that being unsatisfying – some of my friends said they needed more – and it's hard for me to deny needing more, too. But it's not for a lack of content. It's because the content is. So. Good.

Where some films aim for cinema at its most realistic, Moonlight aims for reality at its most cinematic. Jenkins and James Laxton's camera captures astounding imagery. The colours pop in ways I don't think I've ever seen. Blues engulf frames, ocean greens become lush, sweat and tears shine upon black faces. Jenkins often opts for medium shots and close-ups, allowing these faces to work their magic. There's a consistent sense of motion that's hard to pinpoint; it isn't entirely smooth, becoming shaky at select moments, but there's a gorgeous (if imprecise) ebbing-and-flowing, emulating the Miami waves that Jenkins revisits. Realistically, I only waited six months to see this picture, but there's a feeling that I've waited my entire life to witness something like it.

I viewed this with so much prior knowledge that I felt like I knew Chiron before I'd even met him. I thought I understood him. But Chiron, Jenkins and McCraney's stories will never be my own; no amount of my own isolation or confusion outweighs the context of those feelings within Moonlight. They're intrinsic to this specific community in this specific location. And yet, every person at work here allows us understanding and empathy. I have an inkling that the film won't hold up as well in the future. But that doesn't really matter. I know how much Moonlight means to others, and to have experienced it in this moment... it's a beautiful thing to have been, to continually be, a part of.

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