I missed writer/director Barry Jenkins’ much-hyped Moonlight on its first pass through theaters, but now that it’s back for a return engagement thanks to a wheelbarrow-full of Oscar nominations, I found myself without a valid excuse for missing out a second time. Sure, sometimes the PR machine that kicks into high gear during awards season puts its muscle behind a lackluster effort that leaves you scratching your head and wondering what all the fuss was about, but everything I’d read made it seem like this flick was the real deal — it sounded timely, topical, authentic, and exceedingly well-made, and on the whole, bets don’t come much surer than that.
For those unfamiliar with the particulars, Moonlight follows the story of a bright, sensitive, and quiet African-American kid growing up in and on some of the meaner streets of Miami, and wears its conventional three-act structure on its sleeve by first focusing on its protagonist as a nine-year-old nicknamed Little (played with amazing confidence and nuance by Alex R. Hibbert), then a troubled sixteen-year-old who answers to his given name of Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and finally as a mid-20s “gang-banger” who answers to the street name of “Black” (Trevante Rhodes). Jenkins’ script (with a “share” on the story credit given to Tarell Alvin McCraney) is a surprisingly subtle and largely internalized yarn that eschews anything even vaguely resembling the moralizing we see in so many films that fit into the broadly-defined “troubled youth” sub-genre, and that deftly navigates the tumultuous and complex evolving relationships that Little/Chiron/Black has with his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris); father figure/mentor, Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae); and best and only friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland, respectively), while at the same time remaining almost intensely introspective from start to finish. It’s a tightrope act of the most daring and potentially treacherous sort, to be sure, but it sure seems effortless enough in the hands of this — and I don’t say this lightly — amazingly talented cast. Literally no one turns in a performance that could be called less than stellar, and some (Ali, Hibbert, Sanders, Rhodes, and Harris) are downright historically memorable. If you’re an aspiring actor, particularly an aspiring actor of color, this flick is a veritable clinic that should be required viewing.
And ya know what? The same goes for the rest of you, too. Moonlight treads brave thematic ground in its presentation of the life of a young, gay black man coming of age in a hostile environment and subsuming not only his sexuality but his very happiness for the sake of survival, and takes a highly gutsy non-judgmental approach to the contradictions about urban life inherent in so many of its characters : Juan is the closest thing to a decent role model Little has, but he’s also a drug dealer who sells his youthful charge’s mother crack; Teresa is a kind-hearted woman who’s willing to look the other way when it comes to how her boyfriend makes a living; Paula is a desperate addict who would probably like to do the right thing but doesn’t even know how to anymore; Kevin is the only person to show physical and romantic love for Chiron as a teen yet is also willing to punch him in the face to “prove” his manhood; etc. It would be easy — shit, too easy — for Jenkins to editorialize on any or all of this, but he shows downright heroic restraint in not doing so, as well as a tremendous amount of faith and trust in his audience to form their own conclusions without him telling them what they should think. The warm patina added to the proceedings by the quietly Euro-stylized cinematography of James Laxton gives the film a unique and and highly personal “final touch” in stylistic terms, and the end result of all these meticulously-executed elements is more than just a bit, dare I say it, magical.
So, the question that comes immediately to mind after all this heady praise is a very valid one indeed — is Moonlight, in fact, the best film of 2016?
I wish I could answer that with anything other than a blunt and honest “who the hell knows?,” but I can’t. I haven’t seen a good number of the films nominated for Best Picture, much less all the great ones that didn’t get a nod from the Academy, but I will say this much — it’s probably the best film that I saw, and odds are very good that if you check it out, you’ll agree. I’ve been rifling through what passes for the contents of my mind since seeing it looking for some grounds — any grounds — on which I can proffer even mild criticism for what Jenkins has achieved here, and I have to admit : I’m coming up empty. I can’t think of a more powerful or unqualified endorsement than that.
We’ll know in fairly short order whether or not the Hollywood establishment agrees with the glowing assessments offered by myself and other amateur and professional critics for Jenkins’ entirely unpretentious character-driven masterpiece, but something tells me that, Best Picture Oscar in tow or not, Moonlight will stand the test of time more steadfastly than its competitors simply because, for all its contemporary relevance, the story being told here, and perhaps even more crucially the way in which it’s told, are well and truly timeless.