By Brent Holmes
It’s been eight years since Barry Jenkin’s debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy. Whatever took him so long to make his second feature; it must have been time well spent because Moonlight is a masterpiece. From the opening long take featuring a camera rotating around two characters; you know you’re watching the work of a director with an eye for visual style and storytelling.
Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes star as Chrion, a gay black youth growing up in Miami. His story is divided into three parts: Little, Chrion, and Black. If Oscars could be given to three actors at once, this might warrant it. Chrion’s mannerisms and nuances — from the way he always looks down to his intense introversion — are unbelievably consistent between actors.
Chrion’s life is hard. He runs from childhood bullies on a daily basis. His mother (Naomie Harris) is addicted to drugs provided to her by Chrion’s conflicted surrogate father figure, Juan (Mahershala Ali). He has a secret crush on his friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/André Holland).
Moonlight is interested in the effect, not the cause. The exposition is minimal. Major characters leave or die off screen. Their absence is felt rather than explained save for a passing remark. It’s the subtleties in performances of the actors that show the baggage these off-screen events have had on their lives. It’s a hard road to take, but it works.
The immediate comparison to reach for is Boyhood. Both films follow the youth of their protagonists through their coming-of-age. But Moonlight succeeds in all the ways Boyhood failed. This isn’t a story where the main character is a vehicle for the audience to go on some nostalgic road trip through that beautiful period of trying to figure out who you are. This is a story of a person for whom the question of “who are you” is an ongoing battle.
Moonlight will go down as one of the most important films of this year. Go see it.
Moonlight screens on October 7 at 9pm at the Centre for the Performing Arts and is part of the Panorama program stream.