When a director releases their first film, they are attempting to find their style within a feature length run time. However, when they finally get into the rhythm of things their second film attempts to announce to the world who they are and why audiences should care. If “Moonlight” says anything about director Barry Jenkins, it’s that his poetic vision and eloquent touch is completely worthy of our attention.
“Moonlight” is based on a scrapped theatre production by playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney titled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”. Jenkins first saw the script when both he and McCraney were in college and decided to adapt it into a film including aspects of his own life (Jenkin’s mother, like the one in “Moonlight”, suffered from drug addiction). The story follows three separate moments in a man’s life; boyhood, high school and adulthood, where he struggles to accept his identity as a black gay man in a harsh urban environment. Along the way he gains the trust a childhood friend, whom he grows affection for to the point of being a potential lover. The three actors portraying each stage of the main character’s life, Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes give touching and moving performances. The sensitivity and tattered history portrayed in eyes and subtle movements create a thoughtful through line that can be felt throughout the entire film. Each actor giving a similar performance, adding to the authenticity of the main character growing older.
Most of the other characters use the same actors, with Paula (played by Naomi Harris) only changing in age with highly convincing makeup. Her harsh, pushy and battered performance is undoubtedly Oscar worthy. As is the performance of the drug dealer father figure Juan. It’s Barry Jenkin’s direction however, that truly shines, not only because of this casting and use of narrative structure, but also because of the finer, more technical details. “Moonlight” was filmed with anamorphic lenses similar to the recent indie darling “La La Land”, but that film used its lenses to capture the romanticism of the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals, whereas “Moonlight” attempts to capture rich and detailed emotion. Similar to Jenkin’s inspiration Wong Kar-wai (director of “In the Mood for Love” and “Chunking Express”), this style is meant to evoke every aspect of sadness, isolation, pain, tragedy and eventual subtle moments of happiness. This is emphasized even further by the high saturated color pallet present in “Moonlight”. Jenkins understands that emotion isn’t just an aura the actors emit from themselves on screen; it’s possible to telegraph those same exact feelings and heighten them with visual flair and properly paced edits. Even the score by Nicholas Britell echoes the same pain, sorrow and beauty found in classical music.
“Moonlight” has a deliberately slow pace, but once again it’s all in service to an incredibly human narrative of change and misunderstanding. We needed to feel every beat of this character’s emotional spectrum and change, which Jenkin’s delivers on in full force. Resulting in a sophisticated and moving tale that’s impact and power is something that will outlive its surprise win at the Oscars. See it and be awestruck.