Directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae
Easily the year's most earnest and quietest masterpiece, Moonlight is a remarkable achievement in storytelling that benefits from its small budget and slice of life atmosphere. Told in three parts, director Barry Jenkins' captivating drama is not only a testament to raw filmmaking, but also to life experiences that rarely get the cinematic treatment, especially in such an honest way.
From the moment we meet Little (newcomer Alex Hibbert), his shyness and struggle reign supreme. Through his interactions with other kids, we learn he questions his identity, most notably in the eyes of his peers. Through his interactions with his mother (Naomie Harris), we learn he questions his value, most notably in the one person who should be there for him. As time transitions Little into Chiron (Ashton Sanders), his teenage angst is only heightened by his inner dialogue. When he finally becomes an adult, going by the name Black (Trevante Rhodes), the facade he's created only hides his true self, perhaps the biggest heartbreak of them all.
Moonlight is shot in a beautifully dirty cinematic scope, highlighting Miami's lower class and picturesque beaches. There's special care taken in the visuals, giving certain colors power over their scenes. When our hero is a child, the pinks and reds illuminating behind his mother's half-opened door create the same kind of wonder every kid experiences, knowing they aren't allowed in their parents' room. The same pinks mix with purples as Chiron has his first awakening on the Miami shores with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). This scene in particular serves as one of the most honest moments in the film.
What works most of all is the stellar cast, many of whom are newcomers. Hibbert, the youngest of the film's stars, is captivating as the strong, but frail, Little. When he befriends the neighborhood drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), Little's dependency on Juan and his wife, Teresa (Janelle Monae), sets the stage for the many questions Little will grow to have. In that first chapter, Ali especially shines, giving one of the film's many Oscar-worthy performances.
Also deserving of an awards season boost, Harris delivers her strongest performance to date as the mother, Paula. Her addictions aside, the true heart of the entire film comes in one fateful scene in the third act between her and the grown Black.
The ensemble cast and incredible direction by Jenkins have created a brilliantly crafted look into a life wrestling with the beauty and pain of life and love; an image that rarely gets shared in such a stunning and captivating way.
Runtime: 1h 50min