Moonlight is a lot like Boyhood, except its focus is not on cinema’s most overrepresented group – the straight, white male.
Although the film’s previews might lead to some confusion as to what the movie is actually about, Moonlight’s structure is pretty straightforward. The story surrounds an African-American man named Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Aston Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) as he navigates through three pivotal moments of his life. Transitioning from youth to adolescence to adulthood in a three-act structure, Moonlight is a character study about the people surrounding Chiron.
Not only is the movie about Chiron discovering and accepting his queer sexuality, but the film deals with issues of masculinity, identity and addiction culture. So while Chiron’s desire for intimacy plays a big role in the movie, Moonlight is not just a movie about a gay relationship. Perhaps this is why the film still seems authentic, despite the fact that director Barry Jenkins is not queer, but an ally to the LGBT community.
With this in mind, Moonlight seems more like a character study for Miami, the film’s location, than the film’s main character. Although the story follows Chiron as he continues to grow, the people surrounding Chiron are the one’s who get most of the attention (and dialogue). Between Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris), an old mentor (Mahershala Ali) and an intimate friend (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland), the movie creates such a rich background for its star that the main character doesn’t even need all that much development.
Based on the shelved play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell McCraney, this authenticity spreads into the film’s dialogue. Jenkins has highlighted that there is no code-switching within the film – the dialogue is spoken as it is in Miami – and the actors all live in the city. Because of this, the dialogue seems incredibly genuine and realistic.
To be honest, the film doesn’t really even need dialogue (and you may lose a line or two, if you’re not used to the way Miami natives speak). Much of Moonlight involves actors looking dramatically at one another. And while that doesn’t necessarily sound all that interesting, it actually is because there is so much that is conveyed with every shot. The actors have such piercing gazes that the audience is able to project their own thoughts and insecurities onto the characters.
All of this is not to mention that Moonlight has an incredibly unique visual style. The film is shot with a very shallow depth-of-field and large aperture, leading to a very sensitive sense of space. This is only heightened by the deep contrast between the beautiful imagery and horrific actions happening on screen. And because each of the three sequences take place in a radically different time in Chiron’s life, each sequence is shot on a different film stock, creating a constantly evolving visual narrative.
At times, Moonlight can seem like a coming-of-age horror film. While the movie ultimately focuses on growth, and the imagery is quite beautiful, there is a certain stillness that seems to imply something sinister is about to happen. While there are no jump scares, there is certainly a lot of catharsis by the end of the film. Moonlight might not be a flashy, in-your-face, tears-and-screaming-to-the-max type of movie, but it will certainly leave an impression.