Sometimes there is perfect work. Art that at every level achieves its goals and transcends simple theatre-going pleasure, reaching out to an audience with glowing hands and infecting life. Moonlight (2016, Dir. Barry Jenkins) is conceived, constructed, and executed with such elegance and genius that it envelopes the viewer in an ecstatic blanket of narrative brilliance, altering the way one views the world.
Moonlight stars Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhode as Chiron, a gay black boy enduring his circumstances in three temporally progressive stages. As Chiron matures and mitigates life growing up poor in Miami, he attracts the mentorship of Juan (Mahershala Ali) a wealthy drug dealer, wearily tolerates his addict mother Paula (Naomi Harris), and enjoys friendship with Kevin (played successively by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland).
On the level of performance this film is astounding. Piner, Jerome, and Holland agree with such fluidity and perfection on Chiron’s characterization that the results of his maturity are breathtaking. For that matter, every single performance in Moonlight catapults off the screen in an electric shock of utter brilliance. Mahershala Ali explodes with subtlety as Juan, creating a devastatingly nuanced character within few screen minutes. Naomi Harris shines as Chiron’s drug-addled mother, performing far past the level of stereotype, arriving at a detailed, layered place that simmers before it erupts. André Holland calmly rumbles as adult Kevin, guiding the ship of his character with total control and clarity.
I feel irresponsible picking out certain performances when every actor in this film is perfect.
Visually Moonlight is incomparable. Lens flare dance across the screen as rich colors ooze through the frame. Cinematographer James Laxton delivers a virtuoso performance in framing both mobile and static, as his camera effortlessly glides in soft swirls, and delivers a richness of tone that recalls the brilliance of Robert Elswit in There Will Be Blood (2007). Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon edit the film brilliantly, at times eschewing classical continuity for long takes and jump cuts, and knowingly letting Moonlight’s outrageously talented performers shine through their scenes without oppressive montage rapidity.
For directing, Barry Jenkins deserves triple the praise he currently receives. I cannot possibly overstate how every scene in this film is executed perfectly. It’s shocking and humbling to attempt to imagine the brilliance behind the camera when coaxing and encouraging such powerful moments of subdued vulnerability, when reaching for the simple drama of the eyes, and exploding just that across the screen through the perfection of its execution. Jenkins has entered the echelon of greatness for this film, as it’s a towering feat of honesty, thoughtfulness, craft, skill, and genius.
The subject matter of Moonlight is of course deeply important, as it works through the particulars of an individual lying on an intersection of blackness, queerness, and poverty. The film maintains its transcendence by never devolving into didacticism, and thus refraining from reductive, broad statements on Gay Black Men. Rather, it keeps close to Chiron and Chiron’s deal, a handy trick of art-house cinema that works magically to accomplish the opposite, and broadly speak to a wholly different viewer such as myself.
The end result of a perfect film is difficult to articulate. My experience with Moonlight was overwhelming, it’s images and performances so dazzling and transcendent that I felt clawed at, torn open with tiny tools. I came away from this film with not a buzz but an emanation of pure awe, a feeling of utter astonishment at the level of artfulness projected on the screen. Having previously held Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) as the watermark for unquestionably genius acting, I was continuously euphoric to see Moonlight easily sweep past that standard. Akin to my first viewing of Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), Moonlight altered my literal way of seeing the world, turning my visual experience into an extension of the film’s aesthetics, an infection at the hands of a transcendent quality. Moments sting me continually like mosquitoes, the emotionality behind the looks of Juan and adult Chiron flit around my head at a near-annoying pace, flooding me with the pleasure of watching masters at work.
The downfall of a film like Moonlight is the certainty that such cinematic experiences are rare in a lifetime.