Sunday, January 22, 2017

Moonlight: Three-Act Masterpiece

Listen, you've all heard the hype by now. You're sick of people telling you how great Moonlight is. But you know what? I'm here to tell you that Moonlight is spectacular. And if you haven't seen it yet, stop messing around and go watch it immediately.

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight is a three-act story of a boy named Chiron. In the first act, titled "Little," we get to see him as a young black boy in Miami (played by Alex Hibbert). He has a difficult home life with a crack-addicted single mother (Naomie Harris) but develops an unlikely bond with a drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). This act features some singularly beautiful moments, including a scene when Juan is teaching Chiron to swim and you, as an audience member, feel like you are being plunged into the ocean and having the most blissful experience of your life. There is another scene at a dinner table when Chiron asks what the word "faggot" means and receives a remarkable explanation that every one should memorize for a time when they are asked that question.

The second act, "Chiron," follows him as a young teen (played by Ashton Sanders) and explores his deteriorating school life and home life, burgeoning sexuality, and the extraordinary mess of circumstances he is faced with on top of the already difficult challenges of adolescence. The third and final act, "Black," follows him as a young man (played by Trevante Rhodes), and we get to see how all the experiences and people from the first two acts have shaped this man into who he is today, and the choices that will define him for the rest of his life. It is also a deeply romantic story and unfurls quietly and beautifully in a way that made my heart ache.

I cannot praise the performances by Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes enough: each actor is doing superb work in his section of the story, and while none of them look alike, they all capture that quiet vulnerability that makes you wish Chiron could have all the happiness in the world despite the cards he's been dealt. The supporting performances are equally stellar, and if there was an Oscar for Best Cast, I would want every single actor in this movie to win a statue. There is very little dialogue, but everyone is speaking volumes with their facial expressions and small gestures that convey a world of meaning. We get to see how characters grow and change over the course of Chiron's life and it is extraordinary to see how his relationships deepen and evolve without anyone saying much of anything at all.

This movie has been shot exquisitely by cinematographer James Laxton and you truly feel like you are experiencing Chivon's life right alongside him. At one point, the characters talk about a certain breeze that whips through Miami and is so beautiful it makes you want to cry; later, there's a shot of a breeze rippling through the trees coupled with the sound of ocean waves that instantly makes you understand what they were talking about. And the score by Nicholas Britell is simply incandescent. I'm a sucker for any soundtrack featuring masses of violin and cello and my heart felt wrung out by the music in this movie. It is beautiful and soul-stirring, and much like the actors, it conveys all sorts of feeling with no words.

Moonlight is that wondrous thing, a movie that you don't merely watch - you experience it. You feel it in your very bones, you understand these characters, you are invested in their failures and successes. I know nothing about being a young black boy in Miami, but for two hours, I walked in his shoes, watched him learn to swim, fight, love, and forgive, and I will never forget it. 

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