Saturday, October 29, 2016
Barry Jenkins is a fascinating storyteller, and in large part because of how he goes about being fascinated by his subject, how his camera roams at times, and at others when he knows to cut between his subjects. But most of all, he is a truly magnificent filmmaker because of how he so deftly finds universal themes from a place and people that is somewhat specific. This is a story about a boy who grows into a man - I'm tempted to call it the 'better, bigger, blacker-er Boyhood', though that's not totally the case - but he is also a boy growing up in a largely black, Southern, lower (middle?) class neighborhood, where it seems drugs are everywhere (including his own mother who is an addict) and no one can be "soft". And if you're gay, a "f***ot?" Watch out.
I grew up in a town and in the public school system where it was predominantly black and brown and Hispanic, and it seemed like even having the slightest effeminate tendencies would make that one a subject for immediate ridicule (I was even picked on and I was pretty sure from a young age I wasn't gay, but was picked on so much for a moment almost though I was, it was that persistent). It may not be so different for white small towns or big cities or who knows what, but it's especially difficult for African-American men to come out. And yet if Moonlight was only about the gay issue then it would be interesting but not overly compelling. I think what Jenkins and his actors are communicating so strongly is being *so* isolated and without any options that it's about one's overall identity. Sex and attraction is a large component, but simply knowing who one is is a major struggle.
Jenkins has some very big, emotional scenes in this film, which is told in three parts, in large part coming from the dynamic between the boy, called "Little" but actual named Chiron, and his mother (Naomie Harries, I mean, god damn she is amazing in this). However, the predominant mood here is one of subtlety, of a vision that is fairly ambitious but is more about the interior life of his protagonist, this boy having to navigate how he should be in a society that leaves little options to get out and be something more than a drug dealer or the like (eventually, both he and another friend character, Kevin, wind up in jail in-between parts 2 and 3. This can be a difficult way to make someone interesting, but there's so much truth from these young actors, especially the boy playing Chrion in middle-school age, that your heart pours out even more because of the restraint, because of the shyness that is hiding back an entire interior life that's more than what we can see: one of pain and want.
The way Jenkins shoots everything gives characters and places an extra texture, how he'll show two people by a beach at night becoming closer together naturally over minutes that feel pregnant with meaning. To use the word 'sensitively drawn and performed' may be a cliche, but sensitive is the only way I can think to describe it. This isn't to say it's melodramatic, far from it; when we get the bullies that come at Chiron, it feels raw and immediate, like something could pop and violence could erupt at any moment. Sometimes, it seems, it does. A small piece of advice is given to the boy by the drug dealing father-figure (no one else in his life fills that role, and he doesn't realize at first he is a dealer): no one can tell you who you are, you have to figure that out for yourself.
When I first got out of the theater at the end, I was wondering if the ending was slightly abrupt, that things come to a conclusion somewhat not so much fast but there's something else. I think writing this review now, I was more touched and moved by the thought of 'I now want to see where this story goes, what happens now that Chrion has had this emotional breakthrough.' It's as subtle as many moments in this film, but there's a poetic side to it that is potent and you can almost touch it that it's so powerful. Moonlight is profound because it doesn't force anything, it lets those moments where things aren't said speak out loud, when characters share looks or someone looks away while another looks straight on at another person, or the movement of boys with one another, and you can fill in the gaps for yourself. It's also a look at the black experience that is both specific to that world but goes beyond that: if you've ever not known who you are in your life, if you've felt lost or abused or abandoned, this is a film for you.
I can't wait to see what Jenkins does with his career, it could last a long time.