“Stories of LGBT people of color have been largely ignored in film or at least relegated to the sidelines while instead, we’re offered up the whitewashed history of Roland Emmerich’s tone-deaf Stonewall or straight-friendly Oscar bait like The Danish Girl,” writes the Guardian‘s Benjamin Lee. “But, in a festival season that’s too often populated by quite literally vanilla awards fare, writer/director Barry Jenkins’s astonishing new film is both proudly black and refreshingly queer. It’s a thrilling, deeply necessary work that opens up a much-needed and rarely approached on-screen conversation about the nature of gay masculinity.”
“Although it’s set in and around Miami, Moonlight largely takes place within the confines of its young protagonist’s mind,” writes Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn. “The film opens by tracking petite adolescent Chiron (Alex Hibbert) through his shyest days when schoolyard bullies dub him ‘Little.’ By its second chapter, Chiron is an alienated teen (Ashton Sanders); in the modern-day finale, he has undergone a dramatic transition into young adulthood and taken on the nickname ‘Black’ (Trevante Rhodes). But he still hasn’t quite figured out how to express his deepest feelings, and therein lies the movie’s greatest source of intrigue. Jenkins and his extraordinary cast generate powerful suspense around questions of when, and how, the repressed character might find emotional liberation.”
“The story was originally conceived as a short play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney,” notes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “His work for the stage—such as The Brother/Sister Plays and Choir Boy—has often examined the lives of young black gay men from comparable social backgrounds, winning him numerous awards including a 2013 MacArthur ‘Genius Grant.’ Jenkins and McCraney have similar Miami backgrounds, making this an intensely personal film about a bullied kid growing up in the poor Liberty City milieu at the height of the 1980s crack epidemic. Even so, when one character remarks to another about the ocean breeze that brings moments of stillness and quiet to the hood, there’s elemental magic in the setting.”
For Variety‘s Peter Debruge, Moonlight is “as essential as it is insightful. A natural extension of his garrulous San Francisco-set debut, Medicine for Melancholy, the director’s beautifully nuanced, the subtext-rich second feature is no less intellectually engaged, but proves far more trusting in audiences’ ability to read between the lines.”
“Working with cinematographer James Laxton and composer Nicholas Britell, Jenkins occasionally drapes the proceedings in an almost operatic significance,” writes Screen‘s Tim Grierson. “Sometimes, the affectation can be jarring—swirling cameras and soaring music artificially amplifying the stakes—but Moonlight earns its heightened drama because of Jenkins’s clear affection and concern for this young man’s plight.”
“Moonlight is not a public service announcement or a cry for help,” adds Sam Fragoso at TheWrap. “It doesn’t fetishize Chiron’s pain, as so many pieces of contemporary American cinema do. It’s a humanist film; it’s about people, and it’s got a pulse. It presents characters as idiosyncratic, domineering, but mostly fearful—timid creatures ambling through life in the hopes of finding refuge.”
Update, 9/4: For Vanity Fair‘s Richard Lawson, the “third segment is among the strongest stretches of film I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s so carefully written, and prodigiously, fluidly acted by Rhodes and [André] Holland, that it creates an almost unbearable air of presence and immediacy. How wonderful to see a film so rapturously marry artistry and social inquest, plotting a rich emotional landscape through elegant, restrained shifts in tone and tempo.”
Update, 9/6: Moonlight has “easily topped IndieWire’s survey of favorite films from critics and journalists attending this year’s gathering,” reports Eric Kohn.
Update, 9/8: The NYT‘s A.O. Scott interviews Jenkins.
Update, 9/9: Moonlight is an “accomplished but fussy sophomore feature,” finds Angelo Muredda, writing for CinemaScope. “Though the trio of Chirons is fine, and though their cumulative journey from Florida to Georgia and back again makes an affecting study of stasis and change, the trick of recasting the character for each phase of his development does more harm to the actors’ collective performance than good. Perhaps inevitably, given the universalist register, it reveals a hazily sketched protagonist whose few defining traits—sullenness, choked rage, and repressed desire—are played in three pleasant but separate keys.” That said, “Jenkins can certainly direct.”
Update, 9/12: For Brian Tallerico at RogerEbert.com, Moonlight is “one of the essential American films of 2016…. It is a movie in which deep, complex themes are reflected through character first and foremost.” More from Rick Mele at Shadow and Act.
Updates, 9/13: In a dispatch back to Keyframe, our former editor, Susan Gerhard, explains how the post-screening Q&A, “with half a dozen of the actors and director in person, delivered on the ‘richness’ quotient in a way that no VR recreation ever could.”
Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times:
Over the next several months, the plaudits and trophies that are likely headed in the direction of Jenkins and his exceptional cast and crew will be attributed, in ways both complimentary and condescending, to the fact that Moonlight fills an obvious demographic void. Films about African American LGBT youth have never been the industry’s stock in trade, and at a time of intense outcry against the systemic devaluation of black lives as well as the underrepresentation of minority artists, Jenkins’s film functions as a rare and important corrective.
But to praise the film purely for its politically righteous subject matter—or worse, to suggest that it’s playing the diversity card, as some vapidly contrarian think-piece is sure to argue down the line—is to risk understating the aesthetic choices that make it not a sociopolitical tract, but a singular piece of cinema.
“The best film at the Toronto International Film Festival this year is also the most delicate, such a calm yet precise piece of filmmaking that you’re barely prepared for its shimmering, quietly sensational ending,” writes Time‘s Stephanie Zacharek.
Moonlight “is undoubtedly a galvanizing characterization as thought-provoking as it is compelling, as heartbreaking as it is hopeful—and for many others, too close to home,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. More from Jared Mobarak (Film Stage, A) and Erin Whitney (ScreenCrush).
Update, 9/14: For Rolling Stone‘s David Fear, “Moonlight earns the right to be identified as a cinematic pinnacle as well as a personal statement; this is what ‘the movies’ look like when the medium’s full arsenal of expression is being tapped by someone with vision.”
Updates, 9/15: “Three actors, three ages, one soul,” writes the AV Club‘s, A.A. Dowd. “Jenkins’s beautiful, sensitive Moonlight tells a coming-of-age story in passages, each possessed of enough standalone power to operate as a wonderful short film, even as the whole proves much greater than the sum of the parts.” And it “rewards on multiple levels: as an immersion in a particular environment, as a gorgeous mood piece, as a romance unfolding with sweet, almost painful hesitancy.”
“Jenkins finds poetry in all aspects of everyday life,” writes Simran Hans for Sight & Sound. “A casual football game is turned into a ballet; precise framing transforms a lonely bath into a meditation on existence. The use of midnight blues and purples, and the vast wides that encompass Chiron’s single, isolated figure, work together to create an otherworldly atmosphere, all heightened sensation, and simmering, feverish emotion.”
“In the end,” writes Kenji Fujishima at Movie Mezzanine, “Moonlight comes down to the relationship that develops between Chiron and Kevin (Jaden Piner as a boy, Jharrel Jerome as a teen, André Holland as an adult).” Read on only if you want to know how that turns out.
Update, 9/16: Writing for Little White Lies, Elena Lazic has “minor misgivings” that “can be thankfully discarded in a beautiful ending that is all the more moving for its unexpected tonal shift. We abruptly find ourselves watching a simple extended shot/reverse shot sequence that feels more trusting of the viewer, precisely because it is less overdetermined than the rest of the film. The sequence is, unlike any other, in deference to the dialogue rather than to the visual style—Jenkins respectfully steps back to let his characters dominate.”
Updates, 9/18: Moonlight “can bring to mind Boyhood and The Tree of Life, two other movies that found something vast and cinematic in the progression of a child into a man,” finds Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed. “It occupies a space all its own, between the grounded intimacy of Richard Linklater’s film and the poetic grandeur of Terrence Malick’s.” Moonlight‘s “a stunningly made testament to the fact that growing up is a universal experience, but we sure as hell don’t all go through it the same way.”
“At Toronto,” writes Sam Adams for the BBC, “it’s easy to eavesdrop on conversations forecasting Moonlight‘s limited commercial prospects in the US: the gay audience will come, the conventional wisdom goes, but black audiences don’t go to art houses, and art-house audiences don’t gravitate towards black stories. There’s history to those assumptions, but they’re self-reinforcing as well, and they gloss over examples like Fruitvale Station, which played multiplexes and specialist cinemas with equal success. Moonlight doesn’t sacrifice specificity on the altar of universal storytelling, but its details are so precise and so poignant that there’s no translation needed.”
“Jenkins renders this portrait of the black experience and unrequited love with boundless empathy, extending generosity to each and every struggling character,” writes Rolling Stone‘s Charles Bramesco. “In the words of Frank Ocean—an undeniable point of comparison in his tenderhearted queer masculinity—we all try.”
Update, 9/23: “Exceptionally sensitive acting and flow distinguish Moonlight,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. “Often shot in roving shallow-focus that registers the characters’ tensions toward their own desires, Moonlight combines gestures and movements of striking intimacy with unfortunately didactic scenes and rather pat resolutions. (It sets out to frankly challenge stereotypes of masculinity and race, only to back off and settle for a therapeutic embrace.) Flaws and all, it lingers in the mind with the melancholy languor of a short poem made delicately flesh.”
The 2016 fall film festival indexes: Venice, Telluride, and Toronto.