Moonlight is the first film I’ve seen this Oscar season that I immediately wanted to watch again. In its thoughtful exploration of how the small moments and transient people in our lives come to shape us, the movie feels like a puzzle whose pieces only fall into place as the final credits roll.
The film is split into three acts, separated by title cards reflecting different names ascribed to the lead character; his childhood nickname Little, his real name Chiron and his adult alias Black. As a child, Chiron is quiet, withdrawn and an easy target for bullies. He’s also possibly gay, although other characters seem to pick up on this long before he does.
Chiron’s reticence is his defining character trait, and consequently the three actors have to convey a lot of feeling in relatively few words. Each act culminates in a rare moment in which he allows himself to be unguarded, expressing his feelings to another character directly. These scenes are small and subtle, but all the more powerful for our understanding of how hard-earned they are.
The physical transformation Chiron goes through – particularly between acts two and three – can be a little disorienting, but the three actors do remarkable work in creating a consistent characterisation. They’re aided by Jenkins direction; even in scenes with other characters Chiron is almost always alone in frame, the intimate camerawork accentuating his vulnerability and discomfort in his own skin.
In a near-faultless supporting cast, Naomie Harris gets the most traditionally showy performance as Chiron’s drug-addicted mother, the only character played by the same actress across all three acts. Mahershala Ali also makes a striking impression as Juan, a morally conflicted crack dealer who becomes something of a father figure. The film refuses to idealise or vilify either character, instead sensitively depicting how both are capable of displaying genuine love for Chiron while also being complicit in causing him tremendous emotional damage.
In its bittersweet, highly stylised final scenes, the movie arguably leans a little into romantic idealism. However, it’s a necessary emotional payoff that elegantly builds on the uncompromising character work that came before it. An enigmatic and quietly ambitious film that defies easy categorisation, Moonlight more than earns its occasional indulgences.