The only way to launch a review of Moonlight is to use perhaps the most stale, hollow cliche in a critic’s repertoire: If you only see one movie this year, make it Moonlight.
Of course, you won’t only see one movie this year. You’ll likely rush to the new Star Wars or Doctor Strange or any number of other blockbusters blasted at you by the massive marketing machine of Hollywood. Maybe you’ll see something small, quirky, offbeat as well. But, frankly, it doesn’t matter, so long as you ensure you don’t miss Moonlight.
One of those rare and extraordinary cinematic experiences that pulls you deeply into its narrative, Moonlight () wraps you in a time, place, and mood, artfully guiding you into an emotional payoff without once feeling manipulative or artificial. It is an extraordinary achievement in this cut-and-paste era of cinema, a time when movies fail to ignite so much as a spark of genuine, earned emotion. Moonlight exists in a class all its own. It’s not epic or big, but it is profound and profoundly moving. It’s one of those movies that you can feel changing you. It bores into your heart and infiltrates your soul, and simply does not let go.
The ’80s-set story of a young boy who comes to terms with his identity and sexuality in a harsh South Florida neighborhood refuses to lazily cleave to its genre. While there are points in Moonlight where you expect certain things to happen, the story constantly veers just slightly off track, taking you on an unexpected journey elsewhere. Credit first the source material — Tarell Alvin McCraney’s lyrical play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. An awardee of the MacArthur Genius Grant, McCraney, whose works have been frequently performed in Washington at Studio Theatre, is an abstract playwright who puts as much emphasis on atmospherics as he does on dialogue. He’s found the perfect partner in Barry Jenkins, a relatively new director, who opens up McCraney’s work, elevating it to an even higher level. Jenkins is a subtle director — perhaps too subtle at times — but his low-key approach suits Moonlight, which forgoes a heavy hand for one encased in a velvet glove. That’s not to say Moonlight is an uplifting or easy film, but through its anguish and anxiety it finds serenity, romance, heart.
The less said about plot specifics, the better. Not that there are any big twists or turns in the film — it’s not a potboiler, but rather a simmering stew whose flavors perfectly meld by the end — but even the tiniest revelations that are peeled back as the story progresses through a three-act arch provide Moonlight its emotional weight. Suffice to say that the central character’s story is told in three distinct parts, as he goes from a young boy to a full-blooded man. The transformation of Chiron — and the instances that cause his internal pain and his longing for something beyond the norm — is depicted with effortless, poetic perfection by Jenkins and his choice of three magnificent actors, Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. The trio embody the evolution of Chiron, from “Little” to “Black,” going from scared and inquisitive kid to a skinny, awkward teen to a silent, disarming monolith of a man with an ache so powerful, it has come close to crushing his humanity.
The stars are supported by an astonishing ensemble. Andre Holland is potent and complex as a former friend with whom the adult Chiron connects with in a powerful diner scene during the third act. Naomie Harris summons up an earth-shattering, mind-blowing performance as Chiron’s mother. And Mahershala Ali, as a drug dealer who befriends the youngest version of Chiron, gives the finest performance of a career comprised of nothing but fine performances. The biggest surprise is pop star Janelle Monáe, who, blessed with natural beauty and warm, compassionate delivery, steals every moment she’s on screen. You watch in awe as a movie star is born before your eyes.
There isn’t an off performance in the film, which employs a solely African-American cast. It’s sad we live in a time where that in itself is a unique aspect of any movie. Come Oscar time, Moonlight could be the one film to give Hollywood a credible reason to break its too-white image without resorting to tokenism. Perhaps other great films will be released between now and the end of the year, but I honestly can’t imagine any being as worthy as Moonlight for every top prize out there.
Moonlight is the best gay film since 1996’s Beautiful Thing, pretty much stealing that film’s mantle. It’s also the best African-American film since 1991’s Boyz in the Hood. It’s been a long time coming on both counts. And it’s been worth the wait.
Moonlight opens Friday, Oct. 28, at the Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington, D.C., at the Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax, Va., and other area theaters.
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