8. Moonlight. Barry Jenkins. USA.
In a year desperate for films about (and made by) people of color and queer individuals, Moonlight took on the daunting task of accounting for both, especially after the noted failure of Nate Parker’s Sundance Award-winning The Birth of a Nation, which was poised to be the festival’s breakout hit before the director’s personal life basically shipwrecked its theatrical rollout in the U.S. (Were there any other major American queer films in 2016 anyway? I’m struggling to come up with one.) Already accumulating almost insurmountable praise at both the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, Moonlight, the second feature from writer/director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), took center stage just as The Birth of a Nation started to implode, and it’s to the film’s credit that it mostly lives up to the festival and award hype.
Adapted from the play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight is a triptych of a man’s life, from adolescence through his teenage years and into adulthood, with the protagonist (birth name Chiron, though he goes by other names at different stages in his life) played by three different actors. Chiron is a soft, sensitive child, a natural introvert who, by age 9, has already built towering walls around his emotions. Moonlight is an unusually tender depiction of masculinity and is uniformly well-acted by the men in the film. Jenkins does such a commendable job avoiding stereotypes and audience expectations with the male figures in the film that you can almost excuse Naomie Harris’ scene-chewing performance as Chiron’s expectedly hot-and-cold crack-addicted mother, the only aspect of the film that felt disingenuous.
Though it has its tense and explosive moments, Moonlight is, at its core, a quiet film that exists through its unspoken moments and serves as a testament to its reticent protagonist. The heart of Moonlight lies in the ellipses between the three chapters. Jenkins wisely leaves a lot of questions unanswered and allows those moments to permeate through each escalating chapter. As the eldest Chiron, now going by the name Black, Trevante Rhodes has the hardest task of the entire cast (made even more difficult by the fact that he doesn’t bear much resemblance to the younger versions of Chiron) and does a phenomenal job of embodying and capturing what came before him… despite building his body into a suit of armor where, in occasional moments, glimpses of the boy manage to shine through.
Moonlight premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September and was released by A24 Films (their first in-house production) in the U.S. shortly thereafter. It will be released in the U.K. by Altitude Film and in France by Mars Distribution in February 2017.
With: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Edson Jean, Patrick Decile