This one is a slow burn for me. I walked out of the theatre with an “that was ok” feeling, but I couldn’t really focus on anything else the rest of the evening. I kept thinking about it. The movie sneaks up on you. It has a hypnotic quality that drags you in, and then because of a sudden look or a sudden gesture that an actor made, I feel very touched by it.
There are small scenes, or small moments, that keep popping up in my head the more I think about this movie. Like the moment when Juan hangs his head in shame. Or the moment Chiron walks through the high school corridors and hesitates for a moment. Or the moment Chiron’s mother is trying to take his money from him. Or when Chiron is standing in Kevin’s kitchen. These are all stunning moments that make my heart skip a beat.
But why? Sure, it has to do with the terrific acting. Every actor and actress in this movie does a terrific job. Naomie Harris is both pitiable and terrifying as Chiron’s mother. Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron somehow manages to display the same mannerisms as the child actors, so that at moments you see the younger versions of the man shine through the tough exterior that he has built for himself. That moment of recognition is magical.
But there is more behind the power of scenes in Moonlight. Director Barry Jenkins knows how to let scenes breathe. Those powerful moments that I am talking about are actually the culminating moments in long scenes; the point where the tension breaks. Those scenes with Chiron and Kevin take enough time to build up and build up and built up an emotional tension. And then finally, there is a small intimate moment that sticks because it means so much. The story is deceptively low-key. Moonlight shows that much of our lives is actually defined by oh-so-important small moments that nevertheless have a deep emotional resonance inside us.
The emotional power of Moonlight is almost hidden inside the flow of the film. The colors and music create a perfectly orchestrated hypnotic flow, and the camera follows Chiron so closely that you hardly notice how much you start to identify with him. When the empathy kicks in and he has to deal with his mother, or his high school bullies, I really felt for him. I felt queasy. I was at the edge of my seat. I wanted to talk for him in his stead.
Here I am analyzing why Moonlight had a delayed emotional impact. This review is more of an effort for myself to understand how Barry Jenkins managed to create such a strong film. You don’t need to know any of this to feel for what is happening on screen. There is a solidity, a subconscious understanding, to how Chiron’s life is influenced by the people who have an impact on him. Like how the adult Chiron seems so similar to that one father figure that he missed at home. It all clicks together.