Settling in to see Moonlight, I ended up sat next to a one-time colleague, who confessed that he was in to see the film for the second time. He’d caught it before at a film festival screening last year, and hadn’t been instantly blown away by Barry Jenkins’ widely acclaimed – and multi-Oscar nominated – film. He realised, though, that Moonlight continued to rattle around in his head, and wanted to give it another shot. He was glad, once the credits rolled, that he had.
I didn’t have the luxury of the second viewing, but instead I deferred to time. I watched Moonlight a few weeks ago, and – appreciating that the internet era demands an instant reaction to pretty much everything – I waited it out. Because if I’d written this review minutes after finishing the film, it would have been positive, but I wasn’t blown away, or whatever the go-to superlative of choice is. Moonlight isn’t that kind of film, though. Instead, I’ve found myself – as pretentious as I’m fully aware this sounds – slowly absorbing it over the past few weeks. Consequently, I’m on board: Moonlight is something very special. I’ve watched 40 or so films since I saw it, and large portions of the film remain engrained in my head.
At heart, it’s the story of Chiron, who we first meet in his pre-teen years. Jenkins, who wrote the screenplay (adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play), quickly announces himself with a dazzling exploration of the troubled neighbourhood in which his main character lives. As Chi tries to hide from bullies, he’s found by Juan, played by Mahershala Ali.
It’s characters like Juan that make Moonlight so special. Powered by Ali’s excellent performance, Juan is but one example of the conflicted, three-dimensional individuals in Moonlight. He dearly wants to do the best for Chi, is alarmed by the behaviour of Chi’s mother, Paula, and wants to give the child a glimpse of something better. Paradoxically, Juan is selling the drugs to which Paula is addicted, and thus indirectly responsible for the misery in which Chi tries to survive.
This is just a small snapshot of the narrative and conflict within Moonlight, and I don’t want to talk too much more about it, for spoiler-protection reasons. For the film catches up with Chi at later parts of his life, and takes its fair share of unpredictable turns. At the heart, though, is always the hold that Paula has over her son, and the damage she’s doing to his life.
Paula is played by Naomie Harris, and I don’t think it’s shortchanging her to say that this is her best screen work to date. It’s stunning, nuanced acting, with Harris ensuring we get to see the layer of a mother who dearly wants to care for her son, in amongst the cruelty she administers. In a film packed with authentic, human acting work, it’s Harris’ tortured Paula that really broke my heart. Chi, after all, continues to explore and try and find light in his life. Paula realises, at heart, that she’s squandered hers.
It’s some piece of work, this. Jenkins goes for a documentary feel, and it helps him zero in on the impossible, invisible walls that seem to surround Chi. By jumping between time periods, perhaps we lose a little bit of useful glue, but also, Moonlight trusts it audiences. It doesn’t need to fill in every gap, and it doesn’t. I couldn’t help want to know a little more of the story, but then perhaps that’s Jenkins’ greatest trick here: making a movie that leaves you really wanting more.
I don’t expect Moonlight to be instantly loved, or taken to with the gusto that people are – rightly – lapping up something like La La Land. But it’s a superb character piece, from a major talent. It’s a stage adaptation too where I didn’t know it was based on a play at the start, and I wouldn’t have been able to tell you at the end. Instead, it’s a story that feels like its found its medium. In return for its quiet ambition, it might just ask of you a day or two to let it all sink in. I found that a price I was very, very happy to pay.
Moonlight is in selected UK cinemas now.