Hollywood is a factory; they produce products to be sold for consumption. We can debate nuances all we like, but, really, when we cut through the bullshit and get right down to it, movies are little more than a cog in the machinations of industry, churned out steadily to ensure profits margins are large and board members are happy.
What separates the Hollywood machinations from a manufacturing plant is that, occasionally, while the assembly lines are busy cutting out pre-fabricated cut outs of all that came before it, something unique comes through the lines. Something meaningful. Poignant. A work of art. See enough movies over a long enough period of time and you start to realize that, out of the hundreds (thousands) of movies produced every year, only a handful ever make it to the level of pure art.
Moonlight is this year’s most masterful work of art.
American cinema has rarely risen to the heights reached by Moonlight, which tells a powerful tale of self and identity told largely in the silent spaces that punctuate a life. It is a drama that unfolds with quiet grace. It sits with the authority of a Zen master, ruffling no feathers on the surface but hitting with more impact than a packed city bus.
No film comes to mind that more beautifully showcases the stages of life as Moonlight does. Beginning in youth, we meet Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teenager, and Trevante Rhodes as a man), who grows up bullied over his addict mother and small demeanor. We watch as Chiron is beset by life’s troubles, never quite figuring them out so much as continuing on, as he moves through life discovering who and what he is along the way.
Largely without plot, Moonlight is more cinematic portraiture than traditional movie. This is a film where technicality shines—from powerful performances to directorial eye to nuanced script—in order to provide us with snapshots of a man’s life and the characters he becomes along the way. As linearly as we all like to view our own lives, from an outsider’s perspective, we are all of us different characters playing different roles throughout our existence.
Knowing each version of Chiron gives us an intimate look at his existence like no movie has ever provided. Its effect is stunning. Writer/director Barry Jenkins takes us deep into the moments that make a man, creating a triptych of images that that allow us to know Chiron as deeply as we might know an old friend. Nary a word nor shot is wasted, as each builds to create a whole that’s, simply, breathtaking.
Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes each bring their own unique voice to Chiron, adding still more depth to the idea that we all play varying characters throughout the days of our lives. From quiet boy to awkward teen to grown man, each actor adds a new level of intrigue to the character and making Chiron their own. Even young Hibbert, who says little in his portion of the film, evokes the pain and fear of an outsider with scarce but a look.
They’re aided by a cast of talented actors—Mahershala Ali as Juan, a father figure to the youngest Chiron, Shariff Earp as bully Terrel, and Andre Holland as Kevin—who fill out Moonlight to create an intricately conceived story of a life. Ali, specifically, gives a powerhouse, emotional performance that begs to be watched, studied, and discussed.
As does the whole of Moonlight, really. Each frame, each moment, each scene is crafted with a careful consideration, bringing the audience wholly into a world they’ve either lived or had no idea even existed. No film in recent memory has been as stunning, as beautiful, or as unique as Moonlight, and it seems unlikely that any film will reach its heights any time soon in the coming years. This is a film for the ages.
Moonlight is now playing in theaters everywhere.