“Moonlight” will be released in USA theaters this Friday, October 21, by distributor A24.
Playing as part of TIFF’s Platform program, a lineup dedicated to unearthing up-and-coming directing talent, “Moonlight” was one of the Toronto film festival’s buzziest offerings following a successful debut at Telluride. And while it remains to be seen whether writer/director Barry Jenkins’ film can become the latest drama to capitalize on festival hype to leap into the award season race, “Moonlight” is certainly worth seeking out, no matter what happens between now and next February.
A touching coming-of-age story of one young man’s life told in three chapters, “Moonlight” is driven by Jenkins’ assured direction and strong performances from its cast. Chief among them, the three actors tasked with portraying the film’s central character at three different points in his life: first, as a young boy (Alex R. Hibbert as “Little”), as a teenager (Ashton Sanders as Chiron), and finally, as an adult (Trevante Rhodes, now going by “Black”). All three are excellent, deepening the character with each ensuing chapter, while still maintaining a clear throughline that makes them pieces of a whole picture as opposed to separate portraits.
The supporting cast is equally impressive, from Mahershala Ali (“House of Cards,” “Luke Cage”) as a dealer-turned-supportive father figure for the young Little (Jharrel Jerome as Chiron’s childhood best friend), and André Holland (“The Knick”) as the adult version of the same character. It says a lot for Ali’s performance that while he only pops up in the film’s first chapter, his presence is strongly felt throughout the rest of the movie; you can see clear echoes of him in the way Chiron styles and carries himself as an adult. Only Naomie Harris appears in all three segments, and her potentially stock character – playing Chiron’s drug-addicted and verbally abusive mom – is anything but. This is a film that rejects easy stock portrayals at every turn and Harris delivers an explosive performance, communicating a world of anger and hurt and remorse through her eyes.
So much of “Moonlight” and its themes – about questioning and confronting issues of masculinity, sexuality, identity – are conveyed through these same wordless glances. From Harris. From Ali’s Juan. From two teenage boys sharing a charged moment at the beach, unsure of themselves and one another. And especially from all three versions of Chiron. The one constant in this character is his silence; in fact, his first words don’t come until a good 15 minutes or so into the film, which makes it all the more important to be able to communicate with a look. And that Jenkins allows these moments the proper time to breath.
TIFF’s Platform program is dedicated to supporting the next generation of promising young directors, and Jenkins’ film certainly announces him as a major talent to watch. “Moonlight” is the director’s sophomore feature after 2008’s “Medicine for Melancholy” (which also screened at the festival), and it is a mature, contemplative film, more an atmospheric series of vignettes than a strictly-plotted narrative. It’s also a coming-of-age story about a character – a young African-American man growing up in Miami’s Liberty City in the ‘80s and ‘90s – whose story is rarely told, allowing Jenkins to deftly avoid so many of the subgenre’s clichés and conventions.
It helps that the film itself is gorgeously crafted, and the soundtrack is evocative, part period hip-hop and part lush, string-heavy score. Jenkins will drop the sound out entirely to underscore key scenes, and cinematographer James Laxton frames each shot with clear care. This is a movie about love in all its many forms – those who are supposed to love us, those who love us like family even when we’re not, and those we love who might not love us back – but this is also a movie made with love, and with clear affection for its many characters and the craft involved in putting this all together.
“Moonlight” may be a quiet, understated gem. But you can expect the buzz surrounding it to become deafening by the time its theaetrical run is over.
A24 will release the film in the USA this Friday, October 21, 2016.
Watch the trailer:
Rick Mele is a Toronto-based entertainment writer who covers all things film, TV, and pop culture-related, and doesn’t normally refer to himself in the third person.