Life could be aligned with a symphony, or at the very least music. Amid its harmonies, melodies, consonance, and dissonance, life has a way of being lyrically complex, with noticeable patterns we can perceive, but subtle complexities we may not understand. Memory of some distant moment is like returning to an earlier phrase in the composition. And in that moment, in which we transport to that historic episode of our life, we might engage with a fluctuating duet with our past self, harmonizing with those feelings and thoughts or offering a counterpoint based on how we've changed. It really does beautify our existence or, maybe, expose its fragility.
Barry Jenkins applies a whimsical musicality to his film, Moonlight, guiding its narrative like a conductor delicately waving the baton that generates note after note. And, like a symphony, he tells his story in multiple movements, a story of a man who is forced to suppress his identity, a man forced to rid his whole idea of love and loving. Chiron is a black man who discerns his homosexuality at a young age, though he has no idea how or what to convey. Nevertheless, he also realizes at a young age that such an identity can get him into trouble, whether it be at school or with his degrading mother who doesn't seem to give a damn about him. The narrative structure, which observes Chiron at three distinct moments in his life as a young boy, a high school teenager, and as an adult, provocatively dissects the machinations the morph our protagonist into the factory-made black male in all of his stereotypical glory as well as the evaporation of homosexual orientation due such societal machinations.
Along the way, Chiron, who is given many nicknames as if his name is as interchangeable as who he really is...or maybe the name doesn't even matter (but it does), is given opportunities to open up and thrown into situations to shut down. Jenkins breathes life into many secondary characters, the most spectacular being the drug dealer Juan, played with incredible humanity by Mahershala Ali, who knowingly steps outside his own social norms and expectations to understand a wayward kid who only knows how to keep quiet. His face regards the little Chiron with a cynical protection, acknowledging the irony of supporting him but nonetheless determined to make Chiron feel wanted. It all amounts to the climax of the first movement in a scene with blistering brutality and honesty, yet quiet in almost every other sense.
As Chiron grows older, the tender moments become more palpable but so does the opposition and mapping out his trajectory builds a sense of fear and hesitation that seems to dominate every element of the film, from the eloquent musical score (which seems to compliment this anxiety with beauty) to the framing of the characters during conversation sequences. Cinematographer James Laxton not only observes but hovers in an almost dancing sort of way around moments of heightened feelings. But there are times where Laxton restrains himself and such restraint is potently felt by the viewer. It is both versatile and minimal in its visual communication.
Much needs to be said about many other aspects: the color is quite delectable, saturated in this disposition that combines naturalism with an active figment of surrealism, a spectral interpretation to a fragmented identity. Moreover, both the editing and sound editing work in tandem, not unlike a duet, to fluidly move us from one scene to the next. There is even a masterful technique used between both during conversations that plays with our expectations, forcing us to regard the human face with more intimacy than usual, and offering a lively alternative to traditional modes.
Alas, I must abbreviate such appreciation, because I do want to comment on the three actors who played Chrion in different stages of his life. Maybe it is the deft skill exhibited by Jenkins in directing each actor with such eloquence...and that is certainly true, but I need to isolate the performers. Alex Hibbert, who plays Chiron as a boy (known as Little), Aston Sanders who plays Chrion in high school, and Trevante Rhodes who plays the adult (known as Black) all display elegant power. It is not just the biggest, most dramatic moments that showcase their talents but it is in the fine details, the specific mannerisms, of which loudly announce the instability or uncertainty of the protagonist's struggles in all three movements. Indeed, these quiet, minute spans of time communicate to us a debilitating sense of unease in which the idea of love, or making love are not just fulfilling but frightening, especially in a world that does not care for such exploration and comprehension.
Each actor displays their own sense of fright and frangibleness, slowly chipping away at a built up facade of a superficial masculinity. Rhodes character, for instance, seems to have built a reinforced fortress of muscle to help lock away an identity he thinks is meaningless, only to express such an identity, albeit conservatively, with his quivering eyes and mouth. Watching each version of Chiron, their wandering eyes, how they try not to make contact with others, their opened mouths, or their hand movements acting as organic shields, is at the very least a remarkable achievement.
Ultimately, though, Jenkins does manage to contextualize these three performances, intelligently conducting each rendition to exude leitmotifs so that each version of Chiron recalls the others. At the same time, he allows a freedom to show a change in each Chiron (like the aforementioned muscles) to act as maybe not so much a counterpoint to the focal melody of our protagonist, but to express change or maybe to express stasis but through different forms though a change is felt, nevertheless. In general, they harmonize almost effortlessly.
Symphonic movements are journeys. Rhythmic, melodious journeys. This journey opens my eyes to one man's continuous struggle with being gay, with being gay and black. A struggle I cannot fathom without help from someone who has been there. Barry Jenkins is so confident in his storytelling that the narrative's vitality contributes to its topical urgency as well as its lingering beauty. A cinematic newness is exhibited by this budding director with Moonlight, one that brings a freshness to film form and content, something I do not mind losing myself in. Play on, Mr. Jenkins.