"It is an exciting debut, and a film that, without exaggeration or false modesty, finds interest and feeling in the world just as it is." That was A.O. Scott, reviewing Barry Jenkins' Medicine For Melancholy (2008) for the New York Times back in early 2009. Scott was hardly alone in his praise. A modest micro-budget film that made ripples on the festival circuit, Medicine For Melancholy was a day in the life of two black bohemians in San Francisco (Wyatt Cenac and Tracey Heggins), who, following a one-night stand, travel the city, share a tenuous courtship, and debate the challenges and contradictions of being black in a white cultural space. The most obvious comparison is the walk-and-talk films of Richard Linklater, but that comparison is also something of a trap. Wyatt Cenac's cry from the heart in Melancholy was that the cachet of "indie" culture privileges white perspectives above all others, a point about visibility and representation that was (troublingly) as valid in 2009 as it was in the days of She's Gotta Have It (1986), Hollywood Shuffle (1987), and Daughters of the Dust (1991). And if you wish to build a canon of terrific films centered exclusively on benign, left-leaning 21st century whiteness, you couldn't do much better than Linklater's Before Midnight (2013).
I was actually not one of Medicine For Melancholy's fans at the time. I found it thoughtful, but more academic than dramatic, and thus more inert than it needed to be—which is to say, it told more than it showed. But it had a voice and a willingness to tinker visually, and cinema history has shown that for a first film, you don't need much else. The question for exciting debuts is always what happens next, and due to the vagaries of muscling into the film industry and getting projects off the ground, the answer had to wait for almost a decade. But Jenkins' Moonlight (2016) is here, and no one could accuse it of inertia. It is as if a door were kicked open in his cinema, marking a giant leap forward in narrative sophistication and visual storytelling. It is one of the few films of the year worth being genuinely excited about.
If all you're looking for is a recommendation, that should be enough, and I would add Moonlight is best appreciated with as little foreknowledge of the plot as possible, all the better for its strange rhythms and oblique strategies to overtake you, particularly in the third act. "The story of a lifetime" is how the ad campaign describes it, and the description is both accurately and deceptively grand. It covers around two decades of a man's life as he grows up black, poor, and gay in Miami. But American story-of-a-lifetime movies—The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), say—usually have an eye on big sweeps and the way history changes around its characters. There is very little in Moonlight that overtly fastens it to a specific moment in history, as if attention to the larger outside world is a luxury its characters can't afford. It prefers the intimate to the epic; it never stops being personal in scale, lingering on colors, cuisines, dialects, and tones, edited so that even events unfolding in the present tense have an atmosphere of remembrance. Time is always moving in Moonlight, sometimes seeping and sometimes rushing ahead. Its form is impressionistic; some critics have compared it to Terrence Malick, but it's closer in mood and subject to Claire Denis. Its drama is structured like a Russian nesting doll being put back together, each layer covering what came before it, and closing with a final, heartbreaking, Orphic glance backward at the core.
Our hero's Christian name is Chiron, and the film is divided into three distinct acts, each titled after what he goes by at different times in his life. As "Little" (Alex Hibbert), he is a quiet, bullied young boy who comes under the arm of a protective, nurturing, and upwardly mobile crack-dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). As "Chiron" (Ashton Sanders), he's an introspective teenager in limbo, slowly awakening to his homosexuality. As "Black" (Trevante Rhodes), he is a hardened criminal, a drug-dealer who left his roots behind but is following in Juan's footsteps. Moonlight derives from an unpublished film/stage hybrid by the playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, though Jenkins also noted in an interview with Film Comment that McCraney's source material was non-linear, jumping back and forth in time. Moving Moonlight into a chronological three-act structure gives it a sense of theatrical order, but the linear chronology is also handled with an elliptical, extremely cinematic approach to drama and exposition, where as much is told through images and soundscapes as words.
One might say that Moonlight is a film sharply attuned to absence, or a film defined by what it chooses not to show as much as by what it does. For instance, we know that Little's mother (Naomie Harris) is a nurse because she is first seen arriving home in scrubs, worried about her son and presented as a character trying to live the kind of respectable life that Juan long ago left behind. We shortly thereafter see her smoking crack, though how long she's been using, we don't know (nor, we can presume, does Little). By the time that "Little" becomes "Chiron," the man in her life is gone. By the time that "Chiron" becomes "Black," she's in an assisted living facility—rehab?—where her son comes to visit. This sense of elision is paramount to Moonlight. Important characters will die or make their exit off-screen, without fanfare. The flow of the film, the way one moment tumbles into the next, feels as much determined by gravity as by the agency of its protagonists. And a characteristically indirect reference to the AIDS crisis in Chiron's science class is one of the only signposts that roots the film in the 1980s. One of the film's most memorable visual motifs is water, seen in the waves that wash over Little as Juan teaches him to float and swim. The storytelling of Moonlight is like skipping stones.
The transformation from "Chiron" to "Black" is the film's biggest leap in time, and at first the change from a skinny, sensitive teenager to a gangster with bulging muscles is so drastic that it becomes a jarring, uncanny point of discontinuity—at least until the third act slowly fills in the details (and, more importantly, the emotions) of what happened in between, culminating in a heartbreaking admission. This makes Moonlight one of those rare films where casting different actors for different ages is as much an artistic effect as a filmmaking logistic, and while the messages about identity are handled with finesse, they're hardly obtuse.
That the middle act is named "Chiron"—the one time our protagonist goes by his real name—indicates that he's at a point in life with the chance to define himself. And given his identity, as a queer boy in a straight world, with a quietly inquisitive gaze, Moonlight briefly holds out hope for Chiron to break through (or become a playwright or a filmmaker). That he doesn't is a tragedy that even he seems only partly aware of. Naming Chiron's final incarnation "Black" is certainly a loaded decision; Black's appearance introduces a version of Chiron full of signifiers—like a do-rag, gold teeth, and gold chains—that will certainly look to much of white America like stereotypes of black outlawry, though by this point in the film the audience should be painfully aware of the individuality that accompanies it. It is in this stretch that the film's oblique strategies, of showing more than telling, of silences and soundscapes and repressed feelings, pay off. Why did Chiron take this path? The socioeconomic pressures and limited options of a man in his position? A complex, frustrated relationship with his own masculinity? The fact that his only true role model, the only authority figure who offered a palpable better life, was an outlaw himself? All are good answers, though none soften the intense sadness of the film's silent last moments.
All of which means that Moonlight is a drama that can be separated from representational politics, but shouldn't be. Like Medicine For Melancholy, it is about how identity does or does not get sublimated into a larger culture, and its big questions about race, class, and sexuality are all the more effective by being planted in such a richly detailed sense of personal and regional specificity. Melancholy reportedly inspired writer-director Justin Simien to go forward with his Sundance cult hit Dear White People (2014), which found its fans by showing a vision of contemporary black life that wanted nothing to do with pop culture's most visible tropes of crime or poverty: its characters were college-educated, solidly middle-class, politically engaged, artistically savvy, and making their presence felt in traditionally white institutions. Moonlight takes those tropes, examines them from inside and out, and filters them through a slippery cinematic construction that might leave you unsure if you saw the film or dreamed it. Its main character may be small in a large world, but the passage of time in Moonlight, the way possible futures slowly narrow and dissipate into the present, is as rich with melancholy as the fading magnificence of the Ambersons. And just as quintessentially American.