With many of the 2017 Oscar contenders scrabbling for position, Moonlight is something of a contradiction. Much like it's main character, Moonlight is content to keep it's head down and accomplish what it needs on it's own terms. The contradiction doesn't stop there. For a film so effecting and bursting with poignancy, it's near impossible to define or depict. Moonlight is something that's felt rather than thought.
Chronicling the chapters of a young man's life in 3 chapters, Moonlight elegantly handles the passage of time. Careful not to take the easy route of using the 3 chapters to thinly disguise the 3 simple acts of story. Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney are emphatic that the story is Little/Black/Chiron, our main character.
Before we're even introduced to our main character, Moonlight opens on Mahershala Ali's drug dealer, Juan. He parlays with one of his distributors at the curb side while a junky tries his luck. What on paper, could seem like a straightforward day-in-the-life, is a seductive demonstration of how the story will be told from here on out. The camera circles the people having the exchange, not covering the exchange itself. It may seem like semantics, but the result is entrancing. The following relationship between Juan and Little is a beguiling sail through past moments. There are moments reminiscent of Terence Malick's Tree of Life, but Jenkins is careful not to get wistful about Little's formative years. While the camera work may have a floating quality, rather than dreamlike flashbacks or sepia-toned nostalgia, the events unfold in pin-sharp detail. It's here we that we get our first bitter taste of the abuse that Little/Black/Chiron will have to suffer, at the hands of Chiron's crackhead mom. We may have seen crack-addicted characters in films distracted by being cautionary tales, but Naomi Harris manages to find a twisted monster in Little's mother. Her temperament only equaled by her manipulation.
When we move into the second chapter, Chiron might acquire a new nickname (Black), but it's clear we're looking at the same person - albeit weathered by parents negligence and beaten down by unrelenting torment of bullies. As we're moving into more recent times, the camera is more settled. The choice here not only underlines the passage of time, but the lucidity in which the abuse is endured by the hands of his violator. With maturity comes more understanding, in both what Chiron goes through and the thing that keeps him so distant from others - his sexuality.
With this is mind, Moonlight isn't a an exercise in grueling cinema. Jenkins defly captures the journey to Chiron's adulthood and his by-proxy escape from the persecution. Yet, even in the harshest moments there's something profound in it's exploration, and ultimately rewarding. Mirroring it's main character, Moonlight manages to offer something so delicate it should break under the stresses of it's passage, but manages not to shatter with the brutality it goes up against. Chiron's story is an intimate one, yet the message grand. It's a true wonder that Moonlight doesn't collapse with the weight of all it's conflicts, but it's the contradictions that imbue it with aching beauty.
5* - Boyzhood