You won’t find a more sensitively rendered, perceptive, or surprising coming-of-age film than Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, now nominated for eight Oscars. Jenkins snatches characters who are usually portrayed on screen as a blank canvas- the junkie mother, the dug-dealer, the messed-up kid- and magically portrays them with humanity and complexity.
Barry Jenkin’s rhythmic approach is apparent from the word go, as the camera follows the crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) as he shoots the breeze with some associates. In a more conventional film, there would be heavy drum and bass music on the soundtrack and a big close-up of the dealers. Instead, the camera glides across the characters- providing an air of mystery and instantly hooks the viewer into a mesmerised trance.
Suddenly, Juan’s eye is captured by the sight of a black school kid fleeing a gang of classmates. This character is Chiron (played as a child by Alex Hibbert), a shy but self-reliant boy from a very troubled background. His mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is addicted to drugs. Chiron is so accustomed to being treated poorly that, at first, he reacts with extreme suspicion when Juan takes a kindly interest in him.
Jenkins can make any shot a work of art. Even a shot of Chiron driving down the freeway by Juan, waving his hand dramatically out of the car window, seem lyrical. It helps that (as Chiron) Hibbert has such expressive eyes and a face which can speak a thousand words. The everyday day scenes have a symbolic undertone. When Juan gives Chiron a swimming lesson in the sea, the scene is shot with devotional music on the soundtrack- as if the swimming lesson is a rite of passage.
Over the course of the film, Chiron slowly comes to terms with his race, sesuality and background. “At some point, you’ve gotta decide for yourself who you are going to be. Ain’t nobody who can make that decision for you.” Juan tells him earlier on. “What’s a faggot?” the boy bluntly asks the older man.
Moonlight resembles a dream-like trance. We see events from Chiron’s perspective as he attempts to make sense of the adult world. Naomie Harris’s depiction of Pula is a seedy, strung-out figure who seems to detest her son for being homosexual, but Harris plays her with such defiance and sentiment that we empathise for her- something that she hardly deserves.
With all the praise being thrown around, some aspects of Moonlight are not exactly original. There have been thousands upon thousands of coming-of-age films about troubled children trying to make sense of an adult world or come to terms with their sexuality or to build burning bridged between estranged parents.
Nevertheless, what makes Moonlight so distinctive is the offbeat quality and ability to lead the viewer down the garden path- we never know what is going to happen next. The film, shot in the same parts of Florida where the director and writer grew up, feels like an inside story. We know that Jenkins comes from the world he is creating through Moonlight. It is refreshing to see that he doesn’t resort to clichés. He tried so hard to give us a sense of the inner lives of the character through their complexities and contradictions.