Barry Jenkins' decade-hopping coming-of-age film is a complex and boldly expressive meditation on time and identity

Film Review by Josh Slater-Williams | 06 Feb 2017
Film title: Moonlight
Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, André Holland, Ashton Sanders, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, Patrick Decile
Release date: 17 Feb
Certificate: 15

Moonlight is a film that consistently upends expectations. With coming-of-age dramas, which is the easiest subgenre to slot Jenkins' film into, too many filmmakers seem to view the maturation from child to adult as a self-contained journey with a defined point of conclusion. And this journey usually takes place in relatively little time, all things considered; in many of these films, a single event will come to define the characters’ transition, be it stumbling upon a dead body or befriending fellow misfits in detention.

Writer-director Barry Jenkins understands that forming one’s identity is not as simple as that. As such, his heartbreaking story of a young man’s struggle to find himself is told across three defining chapters in his life, each named after the moniker this ever-changing person is going by at the relevant time: child Little (Alex Hibbert), teen Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and 20-something Black (Trevante Rhodes). Three beautifully intuitive, disarmingly intimate performances come together to form a cumulative portrayal of a life’s experience – a wounded soul saddled with too much to bear.

In its decade-hopping portrait of strained relationships and vibrant, lyrical visual and aural flourishes, Moonlight recalls the work of Asian filmmakers Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Wong Kar-wai more than one might expect from a film set in Miami. But then, part of what makes Moonlight so special is how it shakes up preconceptions of what American cinema can address and how.

It’s not only a rare portrait of black homosexuality, but also an authentic, complex, operatic, boldly expressive meditation on the circularity of time, alongside identity and love in all their forms. Few movies are as empathetic and open-hearted as this one, and it’s the rare production where a single glance, emanating all of a life’s repressed ecstasy and pain, is able to convey more than the whole screenplays of most other films.

Released by Altitude