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MOONLIGHT Casts a Dark Shadow


By Laura Garber (Ebert Young Writers Participant)

Beware of the high praise Barry Jenkins’ MOONLIGHT receives: this is a film that needs breathing room and sober, uninterrupted thought. Jenkins tackles a social construct within three developing acts that proves to help (but even more so hinder) character development. Distinctive chapters titled in the nicknames Chiron has been given (“Little”, “Chiron”, and “Black”), forms the link between identity and self-realization.  Set in Miami, Florida, Chiron (played by Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) comes to terms with battling his sexuality amongst his rough neighborhood and his crack-head mother.

The classic three act structure allows for much of the attention to be taken off plot and narrative and put the focus on the acting performed by the different actors playing Chiron.  Hibbert and Sanders handle the character in the most elegant form, finding that, despite Jenkins’ isolation of the actors during filming, they all had a key connection in body language and consistent gestures. It was Sanders, playing the character during his high school years that made the turning point of the character believable and endearing. Sanders showed a great amount of detail when facing his abusive, drugged mother, emphasizing the psychological attributes that made his transition to “Black” that much more confusing.  

The story follows the advancements between Chiron and his friend turned lover, Kevin (played by, in the three separate acts, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland). Kevin stands wise and grounded against Chiron’s weak demeanor. Their relationship is built around a “right place, right time” structure.  Kevin just so happens to be at the beach for a smoke session at the same moment that Chiron made a grueling escape from his mother’s abusive rhetoric, in the same way that Kevin was conveniently placed outside the school when Chiron was getting handcuffed by police. These conveniences, normally allowed in cinema, screamed against the dark agenda Jenkins was trying to capture. Chiron relied so heavily on Kevin that within the ten years they had not seen each other, Chiron admitted he had not been touched by another man since their night on the beach. This leads to an emotional moment between the two characters where Kevin comforts Chiron, sending the message that self-acceptance is the hardest obstacle to overcome.

Addressing key stereotypes amongst many classifications, Jenkins hybrids the gangster hard-shell with the soft-spoken interior of a man grappling with sexuality. The breakdown of the acts allows the time to jump forward creating many questions and plot holes that would seem not plausible for the Chiron the audience has grown to know. The second act shows Chiron in his rough neighborhood, dealing with the harassment of a hardened school bully.  The bully was underdeveloped as a character, making it hard to believe that many, including Kevin, would fall to his requests. Chiron finds his voice in violence, when he hits the bully over the head with a chair, and this action down-spirals him (off-screen) into a drug-dealing gangster. Later in act 3, Chiron admits that it was juvenile detention where he learned to become hard. This is an uncomfortable format that perhaps Jenkins used to bring another quick element and social thought to the film.

James Laxton, veteran cinematographer for Jenkins, deserves much of the credit for the power Moonlight possesses. The film is visually stunning. Laxton’s innovative work with illusions brings a dynamic twist of suspense and exaggeration to simple scenes. He spun us around the introduction scene for Juan (Mahershala Ali) that left us dizzy as he and his employed dealer stood still against a blurred background, emphasizing their role in the streets. He unapologetically brings the audience into the feeling of realism. The film allows us to sympathize with Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) with close-up shots and first person point-of-view as he is being harassed by the other kids. Throughout the film, Laxton uses close-up shots that highlight the actors’ craft, and this became old as I waited upon the stagnant growth of the characters, growth that seemed out of reach when the angle became too fixed. Laxton was careful not to break from the sensation of being present with the characters. Chiron’s swimming lesson felt as fresh as actually being in water while the waves trampled the camera.

MOONLIGHT shows social heroism that overshadows the film’s technical downfalls. The importance of the film is crucial, appropriate, and significant in a time where many will need to hear its message.

As a part of our Ebert Young Writers Program for the Arts, we will be publishing the participants reviews and interviews they produce for the workshop on the official HIFF blog.

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