In the Middle of the World
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight — his second feature film and a quantum leap from his first, the fascinating but slight Medicine for Melancholy — is a film that builds itself up by little moments. Very little happens in the movie itself; it is slow and deliberate, with many of its major events implied or taking place off screen, which only serves to make its one shocking event, which comes near the end of its middle section, all the more powerful. But it mostly unfolds in gestures, looks, the movement of black bodies, through implications and uncertainties and the slow-moving paralysis of people who are not sure where they fit in, and let their lives be made for them.
One such moment, stunning in both its sensitivity and its simplicity, comes early in Moonlight. The film takes place in three sections, each portraying a chapter in the life of Chiron, a troubled child from a broken home in Miami. Early on, we see Chiron — nicknamed “Little” by his school bullies because of his size and quiet demeanor — sitting in the home of Juan, a local drug dealer who has taken to looking after him. Chiron is only eight, with barely the intellectual or emotional tools to understand the concept of sexual identity, but he knows schoolyard taunts, and with a fearful directness, he asks Juan — the closest thing he has to a father — what “faggot” means. The question is fraught with all the terrors of parenthood, all the dread of giving the wrong answer and the uncertainty of knowing what the right answer is, and these are amplified by the fact that Chiron and Juan are not even kin; but just the same, the gangster tries to answer it the best way he can, and his answer contains surprising depth and sensitivity, especially given the milieu in which it takes place.
Still unsure and unsatisfied, Chiron asks if he should use the word himself. Juan begins his answer, and then starts to amend it — no doubt attempting to frame it in the context of reclamation, as he and his peers (and Chiron’s, too) use the word “nigger” — but it’s too much. It’s too complex even for Juan to answer, and certainly beyond the capacity for a confused, desperate little boy who doesn’t have a clue who he really is, and a glance at his girlfriend Teresa (played as a woman of rare wisdom and patience by an exceptional Janelle Monáe) confirms, with a slight but firm shake of her head, that he should just let it go — that some things, at some times, are simply beyond one’s capacity to explain.
Moonlight is full of little moments like these. It’s based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, and at times it betrays, if not any particular theatricality, at least a stagey structure; in its third act especially, the dialogue becomes a bit arch and rehearsed. But even then, it retains a natural rhythm, a realism that’s infused by these same small but perfectly true moments: the teasing manner of two grown men who haven’t seen one another since high school; the body language of people desperate to connect, but who don’t want to betray too much of themselves; the tentative, halting manner of speaking, so frustrating and yet so revealing, of people who have a powerful attraction for one another but have a reasonable fear of letting it show. Moonlight is a film that knows people at an atomic level, and there is not a moment in its running time that seems false or ungrounded.
But beyond that, it escapes its theatrical origin by way of being a sumptuously beautiful film. It makes its settings — mostly the colorful if run-down projects of Miami’s Liberty City — come to life; its dialogue is minimal (Chiron says next to nothing during the first third of the movie) but powerfully effective when it happens; it has a wonderful visual rhythm, a circular pattern that is never obvious but completely expected; and everything that goes into making it, from James Laxton’s rich cinematography to the score and soundtrack by Nicholas Britell to the deliberate but forceful editing of Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon, only serves to elevate it. It’s a film that looks and sounds beautiful and that constructs itself so finely that not an element seems out of place.
Much has been said about the way Moonlight portrays black bodies. It is undeniable that it is a film that stuns not merely because of its story — which, stripped of its specifics, might be one of a dozen indie coming-of-age films — but because of the way it tells that story absolutely liberated from the presence of white people of any kind. But even more so, it reminds of the constant peril to which those black bodies are exposed, both physically and psychologically, and how that peril is constantly deepened when the black bodies are poor or gay or female. Moonlight is suffused with markers of fear: will Chiron’s relationship with Juan turn abusive? Will something unspeakable happen to his drug-addicted mother? Will he seek some horrible revenge on the bullies that torment him? Will his relationship with Kevin, the only peer who ever showed him kindness, take an unexpected turn? Will he follow in the criminal footsteps of his sole male role model? All of these questions are answered, some negatively and some positively, but until its very last moment — a moment surprisingly tender and full of hope, however ambiguous — it never stops making us remember that these are people in peril by the mere physical fact of their existence.
It may be that the all-time-great status conferred on Moonlight by some critics is premature. But it is surely the best film of the year, and one of the greats of the past decade. It is a great leap forward for its director; it is a film that achieves with simple realism an emotional and philosophical impact that dozens of more expensive movies cannot come near; and its acting is so wall-to-wall superb that it is hard to single out any given performance. (That said, Ashton Sanders as the teenage Chiron, Mahershala Ali as Juan, and André Holland as the adult Kevin are all incredible.) It is a movie that shows us the vital importance of making your own choices, and the nearly insurmountable difficulty of actually doing so; the necessity of finding an identity, and the mutability of it once you do; and the way the best films can be both universal and pinpoint-specific at the same time. It is an essential film.