The following contains spoilers for Moonlight. You have been warned.
James: So, Moonlight is quietly becoming an art-house sensation. Early reviews out of the fall festival circuit were nearly unanimous in their praise and it’s been a hit so far in limited release. Before we get into the specifics, what’s your quick take?
Kristen: I think some might find it a bit slow and too “indie” in that sense, particularly regarding Barry Jenkins’ direction and style. However, I thought it was a rare piece of cinema that offered an intimate portrayal of life not usually seen on screen. I was captivated most of the time by the cinematography, score and performances, notably by Mahershala Ali (even though he did not have a lot of screen time).
James: I saw the film about a month ago and when I walked out of the theater that night, I wasn’t quite sure what I saw. I knew it was special, I knew I was stirred by something and wide awake to the film’s authenticity and emotional pull. While my memory of the movie isn’t as precise today, I still feel shaken by it. It might take multiple viewings to really peel apart its layers fully, but there’s a profundity, a beauty and almost a revolutionary pull to Moonlight. I can’t say so outright just yet, but I think Moonlight might be the best movie of the year or of recent years. Specifically, I’m curious if you can recall any specific thoughts after you left the theater?
Kristen: I saw Moonlight in the middle of the day, so it felt very weird to re-enter the day after seeing it. I specifically remember being overjoyed by the ending, since I was worried that it would have a tragic ending. I also remember the ending — and their romance — being very sweet and slow, in contrast to the harsh realities and violence and Chiron encountered in his daily life via his drug-addicted mother and bullies. I’m glad Barry Jenkins didn’t make any scenes too graphic; they were slow, tender and emotional. In fact, Chiron and Kevin’s connection barely showed anything — we simply got to see them in an intimate embrace, which was probably the best way for Jenkins to end the film.
James: Just to set Moonlight up a little bit, the film (adapted from Tarell McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue) tells the tale of Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), a sexually confused, African-American male growing up in Miami. I think you picked up on something that I was especially taken with – a sense of curiosity and inquisitiveness on the part of the filmmakers to let sequences play out in seemingly organic ways. There’s pain in the film, but it never feels exploitative; there’s also a love story of sorts and it’s very sensitively handled. Another of its great qualities, I think, is that there’s no easily identifiable villain figure in the film. Chiron’s mother (an extraordinary Naomie Harris) is a drug addict while Mahershala Ali plays a father surrogate to Chiron, who also happens to be drug dealer. Jenkins deals with heavy subject matter but never loses sight of the humanity of his characters. No character is judged as in reductive “good” or “bad” terms.
Kristen: I don’t know if I quite agree. I feel like he sets Terrel — his main antagonist at school — in a villainous role. It’s hard for this character not to be judged as “bad,” since he viciously attacks Chiron for being different and seemingly weaker than other boys. However, this characterization of Terrel might have been necessary to set Chiron down his new path. Chiron’s journey from a skinny, scared teenager to a hardened adult was my favorite aspects of the movie. Seeing this character development and understanding, even sympathizing, with his choices was a brilliant way to connect us with Chiron. I think Trevante Rhodes (who plays Chiron as an adult) did a fantastic job of portraying Chiron as the image he wants other people to see, and the child who is still unsure and timid about his feelings and his true identity.
James: Good point on Terrel – he is certainly presented as an agitator. I would argue if the film has a weakness it might be right there even though it served a point in the end. If there’s minor issues I have with Moonlight, they exist in the second segment in that certain sequences felt more like a placeholder to get from point A to point B. That being said, Ashton Sanders gave a beautiful performance as the teenage Chrion and the romantic beach sequence is utterly magic and already kind of feels iconic in a way. Rhodes, on the other hand, is revelatory (Hollywood really needs to take notice) and beautifully manages to recall both prior incarnations of Chiron in mannerism and thought. One thing I found really interesting is that Jenkins purposely kept all three Chirons a part from one another; all three built separate performances yet they feel completely aligned despite not really looking like one another. I find that incredible.
Kristen: That is interesting; I didn’t know that. Jenkins certainly made many decisions that elevated Moonlight to a higher level, and I will be excited to see what he does next. I think that he and cinematographer James Laxton created an interesting way to view Chiron. I felt both intimately connected with his character, as if I was in his shoes or right next to him, and at the same time I felt distanced, as if I were reading an autobiography of Chiron’s life. I somewhat saw it as Jenkins way of connecting with the audience, and yet reminding them that have not (and probably will not) ever experienced Chiron’s life truly, particularly as a black gay man. I’m wondering if this was just my perspective, or if you felt the same way.
James: Chiron is both knowable and not in so many ways, which is part of the allure of the movie. He’s sort of cipher in his own story from time to time but because the experience of the movie is something that’s so marginalized in cinema it feels quietly revelatory. I’m incredibly curious on how Jenkins follows this up; which might be hard – his first film Medicine for Melancholy is quite good, but Moonlight is on another level. How do feel about the filmmaking specifically? I was kind of blown away – the film is aesthetically, I think, a bit rigorous with its camera work, score and editing. Yet, it never felt isolating because Jenkins seemed to wear his heart on his sleeve; there’s so many ways in.
Kristen: I think the filmmaking is what makes the movie so great. I thought that the editing and cinematography was wonderful, and a particular scene that stands out is when Chiron’s mother is yelling at him as a child. The building tension and the lack of noise, as well as the slow close-ups on both of their faces, creates a singular experience. The pure anger radiating off both the actors as well contributes to this scene, heightened by the cinematography. Another great example of Laxton’s prowess occurred right at the beginning of the movie, and this is when I knew I was in for something different. When Mahershala Ali heads to talk one of his friends across the street, there is one continuous take which revolves around them in a 360 degree shot and lasts several minutes. It was very engrossing and I’m actually quite disappointed this kind of shot wasn’t used again.
James: I wholeheartedly agree. Moving in a direction that may be a little more contentious, do you have a favorite performance? The ensemble cast is so uniformly excellent that my personal best in show choice has rotated a few times in the last few weeks. I already called out Rhodes and Harris, as you have with Ali (also excellent). In the end, the shot that is still playing on a loop in my mind is one near the end of Andre Holland (as grown-up Kevin) standing still smoking a cigarette. It’s simple and elemental but I haven’t been able to shake it. In my roundabout way, I’m not sure I can answer my own question. Thoughts?
Kristen: I don’t know, it’s very difficult. I also go back and forth but usually between Trevante Rhodes and Mahershala Ali as giving the best performance. I might have to give the edge to Ali though, because of what he was able to achieve in such a short amount of time. Ali is a great, multi-dimensional actor, and this is certainly his year. He brings the hidden malice from his Luke Cage performance to Juan, and you can sense something dangerous in him. And then he brings this paternal side to his relationship with Chiron, and you do get the genuine feeling that he does care about Chiron. Finally, his last scene hit me over the head like a bag of rocks. When Chiron confronts Juan about being a drug dealer and seeing crack to his mom, Juan breaks down in tears after he leaves. It felt so real and raw — a really convincing moment which I believe made him stick out in subsequent reviews and articles even though he doesn’t appear in the next hour and a half.
James: It’s a hard question. Related – and I don’t want to be presumptuous in bringing up the “O” word – do you think the wealth of performances may ultimately Moonlight’s awards prospects? Or more importantly, do you think Moonlight belongs in the awards conversation?
Kristen: Moonlight certainly belongs in the awards conversation, more so than other movies. Because of its different style and content, I think it might be a hard sell to academy voters (I mean, Carol wasn’t nominated for best picture which is a huge travesty and insult). Although the wealth of performances is indeed there, I think the only buzz has been surrounding Mahershala Ali. I would be shocked if he doesn’t get a handful of nominations this coming year. I’m sure Naomie Harris will also be in contention, but unfortunately I don’t think any of the actors playing Chiron might get the attention they deserve. It really sums up to their awards campaign and the competition — we still have so many more movies yet to come out.
James: I’m still sad about Carol….I just can’t; not yet. I feel Moonlight, however, has/is/may hit the zeitgeist in a more singular way which will hopefully transfer into stronger buzz. I agree that Ali and Harris are probably the best chances at acting nominations…which is fine with me.