Moonlight review – a five-star symphony of love

Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-nominated coming-of-age film is a heartbreaking, uplifting, minor-key masterpiece

“Who is you?” This question echoes throughout Moonlight, the breathtaking second feature from Medicine for Melancholy director Barry Jenkins. A coming-of-age story about a young man from a hardscrabble Miami neighbourhood, this kaleidoscopic gem focuses on three periods of its subject’s life, chaptered by the different names and identities he assumes, or is given – “Little”, “Chiron” and “Black”. Lending heartfelt voice to characters who have previously been silenced or sidelined, Moonlight is an astonishingly accomplished work – rich, sensuous and tactile, by turns heartbreaking and uplifting. The first time I saw it I swooned; the second time I cried like a baby. I can’t wait to see it again.

Inspired by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s postgraduate theatre project “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Jenkins’s film opens with a scrawny kid nicknamed “Little” (Alex Hibbert) being chased into a derelict house from which he is rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali). Imposing yet gentle, Juan is a drug dealer whose addicted clients include Little’s increasingly bedraggled mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). Aided by his nurturing partner, Teresa (Janelle Monáe, who also co-stars in Hidden Figures; see review overleaf), Juan takes a parental interest in this lost boy, who forlornly asks: “Am I a faggot?”

Moonlight trailer: Barry Jenkins’s Oscar-tipped drama – video

Jumping forward a few years, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) has shed his diminutive moniker, but not his bullied status. He’s befriended by Kevin, with whom he once wrestled breathlessly (like younger incarnations of Rupert and Gerald in Women in Love), and the two share more than just a secretive smoke. But the poisonous taunts of nemesis Terrel (Patrick Decile) tear the pair apart, and the next time they meet, incarceration has turned the once fearful Chiron into Trevante Rhodes’s bulked-up Black, a reborn Juan with gold grills on his teeth and a familiar longing in his eyes.

Drawing inspiration from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s temporally fractured love story Three Times, Jenkins conjures a fluid portrait of a soul in flux, ever-changing yet immutable, like the ocean. Water is a key element, from the waves that lap the beach where Chiron’s desires find ecstatic expression, to the tears that threaten to make him dissolve into drops, rolling like a river to the sea. The very first sound we hear is that of the ocean, a sound that recurs at key sensual moments (a fond embrace, a wet dream) and which becomes an emblem of Chiron’s subconscious. An early scene, tonally atuned to the currents of Carlos Reygadas’s 2007 Silent Light, sees Little learning to swim, transported to another world. Elsewhere, the image of his face emerging from a baptismal bowl of ice water becomes a talisman of self-definition, dispelling nightmares, signalling resolve.

Rejoining cinematographer James Laxton, Jenkins paints the screen not in the gritty, neorealist hues expected of such streetwise stories, but with the rich textures and saturated colours of a waking dream. This environment may be harsh but there is exquisite beauty here, in the sunburst days and neon-tinged nights of Miami. Shooting in digital anamorphic, Laxton’s widescreen frame is expansively intimate, whether circling Juan on the streets, prowling a bully in the schoolyard or watching a quiet conversation from the back seat of a car. In one sublimely memorable moment, Laxton’s lens captures Little with his hand hanging out of the window of Juan’s ride, fingers strumming the breeze that blows from the ocean to the streets.

Musically, Moonlight is a minor-key miracle, with the spiralling strings and plaintive piano of Nicholas Britell’s score rubbing shoulders with Mozart, Boris Gardiner and Caetano Veloso, the latter a sly nod to Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together. Chopped-and-screwed southern hip-hop bleeds into Britell’s orchestrations, slowed and slewed to accentuate the yearning that somehow survives the transition from boyhood to manhood. A scene from the third act, in which Barbara Lewis’s Hello Stranger plays on a diner jukebox, could have come straight out of American Graffiti.

Despite the Stateside setting, this could be called “International Graffiti”, drawing more upon the lineage of Lynne Ramsay and Claire Denis than upon Jenkins’s American forebears. There’s something otherworldly, too, in a backward-spooling shot of Harris caught in a purple-pink light, reminding us that this versatile film-maker, who was once earmarked as a potential director for Disney’s Queen of Katwe, wrote and directed Remigration for the ITVS Futurestates series, and has an ongoing interest in “grounded sci-fi”. In these uncertain times, we need storytellers such as Jenkins more than ever – people who can turn a tale of conflict and hardship into a symphony of love and friendship that endures through all the pain. I doubt that I will see a better film than Moonlight this year.


Mark Kermode, Observer film critic

The GuardianTramp

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