“Indie Darling” is a phrase best approached with caution in an era where the plague of the quasi-naturalist (read: twee) Sundance aesthetic has only claimed more victims with each passing year. Of course, Moonlight is a Telluride darling, a fact that tells us essentially nothing (Telluride is neither as consistently middlebrow as Sundance nor as unilaterally experimental and anarchic as Cannes). And being told nothing for this quiet, starlight wonder is for the best. This project, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, invokes some of the rhythms of a hip, cosmopolitan, aggressively fashionable independent production for which “important subject matter” is considered a fitting replacement for craft or aesthetic. Yet Jenkins’ film, which constantly and wonderfully eludes stable meaning, is – mostly for the better – a more omnivorous, piecemeal production than most “social issue” films, a work of stylistic collision and collusion rather than a monolithic one-size-fits-all aesthetic.
Partially, Moonlight is of the Southern school of American independent impressionism epitomized by David Gordon Green (a few dozen other directors, Charles Burnett especially, are certainly brewing somewhere in there as well). But Jenkins’ palette incubates this contemplative beauty in a more sensual, sensory aesthetic emblematic of a stylist like Visconti (more modern viewers might suggest Almodovar) where the nominally placid, observational conversations are tempered by luscious stylistic color and expressive shape to suggest the withheld fierceness and internal curiosity unannounced by black men who keep their lives close to the vest. By backing the naturalistic rawness of everyday minutiae with a more expressionistic rhythm, Jenkins not only evokes a proxy for everyday life. He also ruminates tragically on the fractious contrast between experience and desire, between the unexplored routines of interpersonal life and the antic inner life left unheard, the life only his visuals can intimate (such visual intimation is a long tradition in working class American cinema; heck, even Capra did it in It Happened One Night).
He doesn’t quite massage the balance as comfortably as he could, but Jenkins is capable of that rare modern feat of producing a lively, reckless work infused with the tiny terrors of everyday, interactive life while also depicting characters trapped in a fugue state of unstated implication and internal longing that is distinctly non-conversational, or at least not conversed about through words. It’s a talkative film where a great deal of the meaning is gradually dissolved from any mooring in verbal diction and the spoken world. Simultaneously, however, every word clarifies the importance of speaking the mind, of bonding, of rejecting the self-policing impulse to hide and restrict the self from the hunger pangs of desire and the need for connection with other people of any kind, sexual or not.
Unfolding over three time periods of roughly length, the broadest strokes (and Moonlight never exists in strokes so broad you could drive anything more than a strand of hair through), Moonlight is the story of three like souls who happen to occupy the same body, all of them named Chiron but several of them preferring other nomenclatures. The youngest Chiron is played by Alex Hibbert ( and prefers the name “Little”), and is emphatically picked on by other boys growing up around him in the inner city of Miami. A wandering soul in search of a family, he is left primarily to fend for himself with the help of a friend named Kevin played by Jaden Piner, as well as an adoptive set of parents played by Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali. The empathetic male of the pair, incidentally, happens to sell crack, the unstated mental fallout of which is heartbreakingly suggested when an unvocal Hibbert comes to the realization that the adoptive father knows Chiron’s tortured, ineffective real mother (played by Naomie Harris) who is a crack addict, perching Chiron in an irresolvable position where the man who respects him more than anyone in the world may also be the source of his pain.
In the second part of this trifurcated tale, a teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and an adolescent Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) slowly learn that the youthful, disparate figments and impressions of less-than-thou masculinity in Chiron’s mind are in fact reflections of budding homosexuality. Although Kevin, also not heterosexual, shares a tender moment with Chiron, and possibly helps him discover himself in the process, the machinations of outside society and the hegemonic order of male youth conspire to defeat the pair, pitting the two against one another in a sudden and distinctly unmelodramatic tragedy that causes Chiron to leave for Atlanta.
A decade later, we return to the now-masculine Trevante Rhodes (playing an adult Chiron dubbing himself “Black”), living a life conforming to society’s stereotype for muscular black males. A surprise return to Miami to visit Kevin, now played by Andrew Holland, leads to the film’s most inspired, disquieting, wrenching, and psyche-burrowing sequence that suggests the process by which stereotypes reify themselves in the minds of people taught to live by them and afforded no other out. The adult Chiron may wear a thick set of muscles to accompany his gold-plated teeth, but there’s a chill in his heart and a well of conflict and feeling hiding beneath his outwardly silent, unspoken demeanor.
Without trampling the significant achievement Jenkins and his phenomenally affecting actors have wrought, Jenkins’ reach possibly exceeds his grasp with Moonlight; his noble attempt to differentiate his film from the anti-style of many American independent films these days doesn’t always merge with his superiority as a low-slung, loose, by-the-wayside storyteller. A few sidewinds into boldface sensory overload (including full-on fantasias that feel like Jenkins putting on visual airs) can strain his otherwise carefully modulated drama as frequently as they effectively evoke the unspoken pangs of empathy, disdain, and sublimated sexual urges throbbing beneath his characters’ skins. He’s guilty of a rookie mistake of over-emphasizing that which is better left implied or insinuated, in other words, although I for one will take a film that tries too hard rather than not hard enough any day of the week.
Insignificant missteps aside, when Moonlight is merely inflected with rather than infected by stylistic bravado, it is a combative beast of a work that works its way deeply into the subterranean ways of the human mind to evoke an ever-reconfigurable, open-ended creature we can only contemplate and never categorize, demarcate, or pacify by figuring out its limits. Moonlight is a work of equivocal conversations of moral compromise where every sentence, on one hand, is the point, insofar as what is said and experienced externally matters as much as some hypothetical “internal” self. Yet each conversation also belies the point, insofar as the internal mind often flowers into imagination both in spite of and because of the social repressions of the outside world. In other words, Moonlight expresses the seeming paradox that the social contours of the world both inspire the mind to conform to the bylaws of social expectation (for Chiron, to appeal to constructed black masculinity) and to escape or imagine a world outside them. In this regard, Moonlight bridges the impressionistic and expressionistic bridge so monolithically set in stone in cinema; Jenkins’ film intimates the dialectic of the internal and the external, of feeling and seeing, imagining and perceiving, shading in the contours of the mind and the way existence in social space informs the mind’s pathways for finding oneself in society. That the adult Chiron has found any life heartbreakingly reminds of the various lives he hasn’t lived, lives that are left hanging in the wondrous, impossibly perfect conclusion.
Whether it is the way the film explores the real life grime of urban life while also refusing to wallow in miserabilism as it also showcases the pulsing creative energy of human contact within urban geography, or the way the script mixes qualified optimism with apocalyptic anxiety, Moonlight is an un-pinnable work. It’s a notable, transfixing, even transcendent achievement that works because it ponders the gaps between transcendence (or personal desire) and the messiness of the mind as it engages with a necessarily un-transcendent outside world. Tracing the self-conscious introspection and battle-hardened judgment calls that consciously construct the veneer of black masculinity one young man erects like a bulwark to blockade his inner turmoil and frailty from the outside world, Moonlight is intimately attuned to the pulse of modern social marginalization without being defined by it. Best of all, in the way it emphasizes the moment rather than the narrative links between moments, we are only left to ponder Chiron’s life path in between sequences, even to realize that we cannot meaningfully ponder his life path at all, that these slices of life persist in eluding any clarification we may infringe on them with. Neither a race film, a gay film, nor a masculinity film, Moonlight is nonetheless inspired to suggest the intersectionalities in all of the above categories as well as to elude or transcend them with a profoundly human tale that defies any “social message”.