Loosely adapted from Tarell McCraney's shelved play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight has all the drama of a contained play but its power comes through the film medium. We see protagonist Chiron at three separate points of his life -- as a 10 year-old, as a teenager in high school, and then ten years after that as an adult. Played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, respectively) who never met each other and yet are connected by certain mannerisms and spacing within the frame of Jenkins' intuitive vision. Each Chiron is taciturn and yet extraordinarily vocal with his eyes. The camera often faces Chiron, and many of the other characters, straight on, allowing what we see to take us by full force.
Moonlight is a terribly intimate film in this way. It does speak to being poor, black, and gay and growing up in Miami. And yet while it's another film this year that takes an important look into a pocket of American culture that isn't often portrayed, it's a very specific story focusing on one individual. We follow Chiron from behind as he skims through Miami nights, and we see the people in his life in full frame as he sees them. There's so much that speaks to the human condition that is vital in Moonlight -- the struggle with identity and the loneliness that isn't always recognized enough to be articulated and what it is to retreat into yourself -- but at the same time, this is Chiron's beautifully passionate story. The people that look out at us from the film aren't seeing us at all, but we feel profoundly stirred as if they are. This is part of Jenkins' gift of bringing the audience into an experience.
Part of this experience of course is in the vibrant colors that marry nightmares with otherworldly dreams. As opposed to American Honey which chose to employ a 4:3 ratio to achieve its realism, Moonlight instills realism by going the complete opposite way. Using anamorphic 2.35 to enhance the drama and power of the epic, and a stylized color scheme that purposefully veers from looking like a documentary. Jenkins worked with cinematographer James Laxton and colorist Alex Bickel to increase the contrast and saturation of each image while still maintaining the necessary detail. Laxton made each act of the movie emulate different film stocks, with part one meant to look like Fuji with its emphasis on skin tones and colors, the second act imitating Afga, a long retired German film stock known for adding Cyan to emphasize the green/blue hues, and finally the third act looking like a stylized Kodak. The result is nothing short of stunning, with highlights that make us aware of the Miami heat by day and its pop by sleek night as well as the palpable shades of the first act where colors accentuate what Chiron isn't fully able to understand yet as a child as his mother descends into an inchoate purple out of his reach.
Composer Nicholas Britell creates colors of his own in the soundtrack, applying Chopped and Screwed (a form of Southern hip-hop) to the dramatically classical score. He takes a theme and reacts to the story as he bends, shifts keys, slows tempo, or brings in different interpretation, allowing the music to act as a vivid painting as much as Laxton does with his light.
By moving the story from a play to a movie transforms Moonlight into its masterpiece. Not only because of its visuals, but because of how much is emoted without words. Chiron says less and less as he grows. When he speaks though, the act isn't made jarring but instead more significant. There are some points where his words reveal just a hint of the cosmos inherent. For the most part, Moonlight speaks with its silence. Why are these words not spoken? Perhaps because we are afraid of what we may verbalize, or because of an understood shared memory, or the fear of what hopes we may dash with words. There are moments that mean more because they aren't told, like the brief second when we see Kevin watching Chiron dance in gym class or another glance that sees the absence of a television set.
Miami is as ambiguous as its residents, just as a question answered in truth can be entwined in grace and then followed immediately after by a truth dashed by darkness. Similarly, a man can deal drugs and still bless a child in a reverent baptism. Moonlight is beautiful and terrible -- a palpable raw story marked with startling points of humanity, but the reason we're so compassionately drawn into its world is because its authentic, specific voice tells of a yearning we all have for a truly intimate relationship. Bravo to Jenkins for realizing his vision with a visceral empathy that allows us to take part in the story.