To do justice to Barry Jenkins' epic tale of a gay, black man as he struggles with discrimination and insecurity in the Miami ghetto is an immense task. In the simplest of terms, it is an absolute masterpiece, the most ambitious film in years both in its subject matter and its execution. Nominated for eight Academy Awards and currently challenging La La Land to be this year's critical darling, the constant hype and jubilation that surrounds the film may be tiring but honestly, it is all completely deserved.
Split into three acts: Little, Chiron and Black, Moonlight follows the journey of Chiron as he struggles against the numerous issues in his life. First and foremost, his homosexuality, which is revealed through Chiron's innocent questions ("What's a faggot?") and brutal abuse from his peers, serves as a constant social barrier and leads to shocking bullying.
Combined with his African-American ethnicity and his introverted personality, it is a tale of persecution and paranoia that is as gripping as it is heartbreaking. The unique structure is perfectly stitched together, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks through admirably subtle hints.
It is hard to say which third is the strongest, all three boasting some of the most powerful scenes to memory. Alex Hibbert as "Little" in the first act perfectly establishes the embattled character and his chemistry with the film's main supporting star Juan (Mahershala Ali) is fascinating and often charming to witness. In fact, Ali's performance as the kind-hearted drug dealer is particularly strong, creating a thought-provoking conflict over where our sympathies, considering his shady profession.
As Moonlight is, at its core, a tale of self-discovery and repression, the transition to Ashton Sanders' Chiron (now in his late-teens) feels realistic and completely natural, the character still dealing with constant bullying while also coming to terms with his sexuality and tough surroundings. The presence of his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) in each of the three acts shows the contrast between their lives and Harris is outstanding at achieving an intense story arc that could easily hold up as its own film.
Trevante Rhodes' depiction of Chiron in the final act is a perfect conclusion to the tale, a powerfully open-ended finale that is brought to life through Rhodes' powerfully conflicted performance.
Barry Jenkins' directing is simply stunning. He boasts an extraordinary range of talents, with incredible cinematography and expansive framing creating a number of epic, unforgettable images while frantic, pacy close-up shots heighten the intensity of several highly-charged confrontations. In fact, the very first shot of the film is a perfect introduction to the talent on display, a swirling uncut shot that interweaves the lives of Chiron and Juan in impressive style.
Rather than being dragged down by the ghetto politics and overblown social commentary of the numerous films that have depicted this urban environment, Moonlight remains a deeply personal tale throughout. The unique approach of the film is particularly clear within the soundtrack, a mesmerising mesh of strings composed by Nicholas Britell to extraordinary effect. This has to be one of the most complete, most effective character studies in all of cinema, a colossal undertaking that each respective actor more than fulfills. It is the kind of film that will stay with you for a very long time.
At the moment, it is hard to judge Moonlight on its own merits. The constant comparisons to other Oscar nominated films, especially La La Land, are unlikely to cease for a while. Jenkins' film deserves its own, separate platform to be judged on though. A broad, expansive epic that is at the same time a highly personal journey, Moonlight is simply stunning. Yes,the hype did indeed pay off.
(As a quick side note, the distribution company A24 has been maintaining a consistently impressive output recently. Moonlight, Room, The Witch, Green Room, Ex Machina and 20th Century Women are just a few of their recent projects, making for an impressive catalogue of releases.)