Moonlight is an unalloyed work of art. You have created a story that is filled with homoerotic yearning, complex but clearly articulated themes, and the minutiae of a gay African American man’s perilous existence, but have told it in a way that is utterly universal. There is nothing that any human being capable of empathy will not recognize and respond to while watching this film.
Aside from uniformly stellar performances, lively and imaginative storytelling, a protagonist whose life is portrayed by three extraordinary actors, and some technically brilliant cinematography and direction, Moonlight, more than anything else, is a story of overwhelming, elegiac sincerity.
Set in Miami, Moonlight’s narrative is divided into three distinct sections. In the first act, we are introduced to Chiron at age 10 (Alex R. Hibbert) who struggles not only with the challenges of his environment but his own burgeoning sexual identity. Chiron is taken under the wing of a neighborhood drug dealer named Juan, played brilliantly by Mahershala Ali, who is motivated by nothing more than the compassion anyone might feel for a child so adrift in the world. If there is a single overt quality that sets this film apart, it’s the richness and dimensionality of these characters. Never once does Moonlight descend into cliche or cheap theatrics. Instead, each person in this world is fully-realized; we feel like we’re watching real people grapple with fundamental issues in a way that is always surprising.
In the second act, Chiron (a strikingly beautiful Ashton Sanders) is 17 or so. In the final act he’s a man pushing 30 (Trevante Rhodes). Often a film that spans this length of time and has such a deliberate three act structure can feel clinical and thin. Yet you manage to avoid these pitfalls. Each chapter feels both distinct and still attached to the other two—sometimes by with subtle allusion to previous acts, other times with recurring characters. And because each character is so fully inhabited, each moment of the film matters. There is no look, or glance, or word, that doesn’t mean something.
Moonlight is a beautiful looking film as well, and seems to be deeply in love with the characters that populate it. The camera work is sensual, moving over bodies and faces in a way that seems to caress each person, especially at night, when the warm climate and heavy atmosphere seem to shroud everyone in gauze. I was mesmerized by this film in a way I haven’t been in a very long time.
In a time when people are, once again, mourning the viability of film as a meaningful medium, Moonlight puts that nonsense to rest. This is an exciting, vibrant piece of cinema, filled with the kind of artistry you always hope for when the screen goes from dark to light.
And a lot of that is your contribution, Tarell, because when you start with a story this nuanced and engaging and utterly human, half the work is already done. As a result, Moonlight is easily the best thing I’ve seen this year.