When, early next year, I sit down and reflect on all of the cinema I viewed over the course of 2016, there is scant doubt in my mind that some of the most beautiful, moving moments I witnessed all year will have come from director Barry Jenkins' Moonlight.
For that matter, when I hang up my hat as a moviegoer a century (hopefully longer!) from now, I anticipate this exquisite film will rank sky-high on my list of all-time greatest coming-of-age stories.
The picture, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, traces the life of young Chiron through three chapters, in his childhood, teen years and adulthood.
Nicknamed "Little" as a child, the timid, withdrawn Chiron is bullied by classmates and finds minimal comfort at home with his controlling, drug-abusing mother (Naomie Harris). His only solace comes in moments spent alongside his kind, empathetic best friend Kevin and a crack dealer named Juan (the brilliant Mahershala Ali) he befriends and slowly opens up to.
As a teenager, Chiron continues to face harassment at school, often violent, and his mother declines into full-out addiction. All the while, he still has Kevin to turn to, and their relationship blossoms into something so much more substantial and special. It also, however, is complicated by the peer pressures Kevin faces by classmates who despise and wish to inflict pain on Chiron.
The third chapter finds a far tougher and more tenacious Chiron in his adulthood. Now going by the name "Black" (given to him by Kevin back in high school), he emulates a key past figure from his life and maintains a shaky, long-distance relationship with his mother, who has at last sought to keep herself out of trouble. Chiron has not seen or spoken with Kevin in years but that changes one evening when he receives a phone call from his old best friend.
From start to finish, Moonlight is full of immensely powerful, often startling moments. Jenkins captures nuanced feelings of childhood in a way I haven't seen so vividly drawn since scenes from Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. The picture is often a heartbreaker for sure but never manipulative and just about everything here rings true. While certain images from the first chapter have most stayed with me since seeing the film, I think Moonlight's dialogue especially comes to life in the final half hour, as Chiron sits down with the man who perhaps knows him best.
Ali and Harris have garnered the bulk of chatter in terms of awards season speculation and both are fantastic, no doubt. But it's a real shame if we neglect to just as loudly rave about the rest of Moonlight's incredible cast. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes are devastatingly good as the child, teen and adult Chirons, respectively. Andre Holland is excellent as adult Kevin and Jaden Piner and Jharrel Jerome are strong too portraying him as a child and teenager. A real standout for me here was also Janelle Monae, warm and engaging in her scenes as Juan's wife and another of the few figures Chiron can count on - she has a bright screen presence that all but ensures a great film career to come.
I have came across some wariness to Moonlight from moviegoers who either view the film has a guaranteed downer or loathe cinema concerning drugs and won't check it out on that basis alone. To folks in either of those two groups - this thing is a real must-see, gorgeously filmed, stuffed with one extraordinary performance after another and featuring some of the sharpest writing I've encountered in the 2010s. Go!