Telling a simple tale truthfully and without embellishment is a lot harder than it appears. And, as with all delicate constructions, you risk destroying the very value it has by over-parsing or over-hyping it. I will try to keep this short to avoid that trap.
Director/writer Jenkins, in his Sophomore film, tells the story of a young man growing up by dividing his life across three time periods and three basically unknown young men: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes (Westworld). Each actor brings their own sensibility, but all feel like the same person thanks to their efforts and the director’s. In many ways, Moonlight succeeds where Boyhood failed for me. This could devolve into a long talk about craft, but I’m not going to go there today. There are other young men that grow up with the main character, but with the exception of André Holland (Selma) they aren’t as noticeable. Holland has his moment, but it also isn’t quite as seamless as our core character’s journey, however effective it is.
In addition to the young men, there are three performances that support their impact. First and foremost is Mahershala Ali (Hidden Figures), who continues to have a banner year. Janelle Monáe (Rio 2) and Naomi Harris (Spectre) help guide the rest of the tale with solid characters and often subtle control.
As I said, this one is easy to over-hype, so I’m going to leave it there. I admit I had put this off fearing it was a going to be a dark and dangerous journey. I don’t want to pretend it isn’t emotional, but isn’t the dirge I feared… it is, in fact, quite a simple tale of growing up and love. What makes it special, beyond its craft, is that this is a film that illuminates characters and culture that are often unseen and unacknowledged, but it isn’t preachy or intended as social commentary in any broad sense.
Moonlight is all over awards season, and has just secured Best Drama from the Golden Globes, which tees it up nicely as we head into Oscars. It deserved their attention and it deserves yours.