People will often tell you that perfection is unattainable. That imperfection itself is at the very core of human nature, and that imperfection — and the drive for its resolution — is what makes us human. The desire to get better. To want more. To be our best selves. It is our successes, combined with our failures, that are the most basic elements of who we all are. We try, we struggle, we win, we lose, we rise and stumble.
2016’s Moonlight, written and directed by the brilliant Barry Jenkins, is a study in these struggles. And ironically while it is a close, beautiful, intimate examination of the struggles of human nature and our imperfections, the film itself feels… perfect. Moonlight was one of the rare transformative experiences, a film so gorgeously filmed, so emotionally resonant, so damn perfect that it changed the way I see movies. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve watched it, always catching something subtle and beautiful that I never noticed before.
Part of what makes the film so resonant is that it truly is a beautiful film. Filmed with a rich, almost glossy color palette that magically combines the beauty and opulence of the Florida sunshine with the stony decay of its urban underbelly, it creates an almost ethereal, magical atmosphere with every frame. Its use of light and shadow creates a whole new way of looking at its denizens, making its cast almost glow (something particularly important given how often Hollywood doesn’t understand how to use lighting when filming dark-skinned actors). Of course, this is helped by a cast that is universally lovely, even when they’re trying their hardest. Yet even Naomie Harris, as Chiron’s struggling, drug-addled mother, shines under Jenkins’ light.
This is then bolstered by an absolutely stunning soundtrack and score, combining jarringly remixed hip hop (the slowed-down version of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” as Trevante Rhoades pulls into the diner is wild) with lush, breathtaking strings. That music becomes a part of the story, often taking over scenes in place of dialogue. In fact, the dialogue in Moonlight is sparse and as carefully, meticulously used as the music, with almost discomforting periods of silence allowing you to truly absorb and think about what you’re seeing.
There’s a deep, wrenching sadness that flows through all that beauty though. Sadness that we all feel in our hearts, no matter where we’re from or how much we can identify with Moonlight’s story. It’s beauty and light shot through with tragedy and fear and heartbreak. It’s a child being bullied, beaten and betrayed by those he loves. It’s a mother who fails her son at every turn, starting with a TV and then taking his money, taking his love and throwing it on the ground. It’s a man who helps Chiron understand the world around him, turning around and selling drugs to his mother. A child who barely speaks being treated like nothing, being left alone to face a cruel, unforgiving world that feels like it has no place for him.
Moonlight speaks to that terrifying loneliness in all of us, tearing us open and letting that fear of loss, the unquenchable thirst for love that so often feels like it can never be slaked, flow out and it’s so intense it feels like you’re drowning. Watching the film a second, third, fourth, god-knows-how-many time is always accompanied with a sense of dread, a disconcerting sense of foreboding amidst all of its flawless beauty as you know what’s coming.
Yet despite all of this? Moonlight is love. It’s a wondrous and exhilarating examination of love and redemption. It’s a mother coming to grips with her past and accepting her mistakes and taking responsibility for them, refusing to back away from the love she should have given her child all along. It’s Theresa, played so flawlessly by Janelle Monáe, loving a deeply flawed man and supporting this strange, silent, broken child he brings into their lives. It’s a love of all of life’s imperfections, all the flaws that we carry with us. Amazingly, Moonlight has no swell of music surrounding a perfect, happy Hollywood ending. Instead, its ending is as simple and quiet as its beginning. Chiron reconnecting with “the only man that’s ever touched me”, bringing their complex, painful threads back together and re-entwined in ways we will only have to imagine. Yet its ending is so sweet and pure and tender, just that soft-spoken admission, followed by them simply being together, Chiron’s head on Kevin’s shoulder, drifting into an unknown future.
Moonlight is for everyone. It touches every aspect of human existence — poverty, wealth, drug abuse, homophobia, race, family, abandonment, wanting, yearning, loss, love — in a way that somehow makes this three-part story connect with everyone. It does so by feeling so raw and so human that you can’t help but empathize, to feel what Chiron — in all of his incarnations — feels. It’s that beauty and savagery and hope and struggle, all combined with raw, unfiltered humanity, that makes it perfect.
This piece is part of Pajiba’s Favorite Movies of the 2010s series.
Header Image Source: A24