Thoughts on Moonlight (2016)

If we define a perfect film as having no element out of place, no hint of unsteadiness in directorial control, no gap between intention and execution, then Moonlight (2016) is a perfect film. Relying on intensely naturalistic performances and situations, it somehow manages to smuggle in moments of interior lyricism without breaking the flow of the film; even the section divisions leave an impression of seamlessness, despite the fact that, by definition, they interrupt the film.

Moonlight employs the triptych structure of Steve Jobs (2015), but whereas there screenwriter Aaron Sorkin tries to cram in all the events of the intervening years, here the depicted events, watershed moments that they are, turn the passage of time into a canvas on which is layered the consecutively encrusting shells of the evolving Chiron (Alex Hibbert/Ashton Sanders/Trevante Rhodes). It’s thus similar to Boyhood (2014), with the difference that the unique production of that film switches figure and ground, making time the subject and Mason (Ellar Coltrane) the canvas.

The three actors playing Chiron were kept apart to keep them from mutual influence, so it’s remarkable that they end up in the same locus of interiority whenever Chiron retreats into himself. True to awkward fashion, when Chiron has something important on his mind, it takes all he has to work up the courage to speak, thereby dropping each question like a bombshell. This bleeds into the romantic scene on the beach, which at first struck me as jarring and abrupt; upon reflection, maybe Kevin (here Jharrel Jerome) knows Chiron better than even we do.

Juan (Mahershala Ali) seems to know Chiron inside and out, too. The third section retroactively hints that Juan sees more of himself in young Chiron than he lets on, an interpretation strengthened by Ali’s body language: bashfully muscular, swaggering but with thumbs in trouser pockets.

Finally, some words on the spinning shots, one opening the film, the other of Chiron and Kevin in the second section. Richard Brody says that they “wrenc[h] viewers out of the realm of the ordinary and into a state of stunned consciousness and heightened alertness.” I admit, I’m not sure how a “stunned consciousness” allows for “heightened alertness.” To me, these shots convey a non-antagonistic tension: Juan and his corner boy keep alert on the street, and Chiron and Kevin keep alert dancing around their mutual attraction—a dance that continues till the very end of the film.

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