‘Moonlight’ Is As Much A Coming-Of-Age Tale For Its Director As Its Subject

Moonlight is not only one of this year’s strongest coming-of-age tales, that’s also an installment in the ongoing story of its creator. The second feature from writer/director Barry Jenkins, coming almost eight years since his feature debut, Medicine For Melancholy, made the festival rounds and enjoyed a small release back in 2008, Moonlight not only avoids the sophomore slump, it makes his first film feel like a demo tape.

(Read our recent interview with Barry Jenkins here.)

Medicine, which stars Wyatt Cenac and Tracy Heggins as pair of black San Francisco hipsters maybe falling in love in the day after a one-night stand, received mostly positive reviews when it came out. But in a lot of ways, it was the kind of indie movie destined to be loved by critics and hardly anyone else, even making concessions for the tiny budget (“less than the cost of your car,” Jenkins said at the time). The premise was a clever twist on the falling-in-love rom-com, where the meet-cute is the consummation, but it was also a prime example of one of my least favorite genres: the film that explores societal issues by having the characters talk about those issues.

Shot right in my own backyard in a series of San Francisco neighborhoods, Medicine is a film about identity, gentrification, and feeling like an “other” in a supposedly-progressive city rapidly losing its racial diversity (issues that have only gotten worse since 2007 when it was shot — trust me, 2007 San Francisco was an affordable, multicultural paradise compared to 2016 San Francisco). Trouble is, Medicine explores these issues only insofar as the characters blah blah blah about them. At one point, they actually bumble into some kind of community roundtable discussion about gentrification on the way home from the grocery store. What a tidy narrative solution, right? Want to explore an issue in your film? Just have the characters attend a lecture about it!

It’s in the tender moments, the subtly innovative premise, the lack of overwrought dramatic reversals, that Medicine shows promise. But it’s mostly hamstrung by its own film schooliness. It feels like a lot of stories people write in their twenties. There’s this guy, and he’s kind of like me — sad and struggling but cute and clever — and he’s dealing with issues, man! Like, is it him or is it society?

Wyatt Cenac’s character, Micah, is a bit of a cypher. We don’t get a strong sense of who he is, other than that he’s an angsty guy with all these feelings he can’t quite articulate (it’d be presumptuous to say that that’s because Barry Jenkins didn’t quite know who he was yet, though that was certainly true of me and virtually every other person I was ever in a writing workshop with). Naturally the film opens with Cenac staring purposefully at himself in the mirror and is shot all in black and white, because those are great ways to make mundane things seem more meaningful.

Anyway, it’s not a bad movie and it’s not a great movie. Moonlight at least makes it seem like a necessary movie. Sometimes you have to clear your throat a little right before you say something profound. Taken as a pair, Medicine is proof that, with filmmaking as with a lot of things, sometimes you just have to get out and do it, even if your first attempt at “it” isn’t destined to be a masterpiece.

Of course, Melancholy couldn’t be preamble if Moonlight wasn’t a triumph. If Moonlight was just okay, we’d think of Barry Jenkins as a guy who makes near-miss indies. Instead, we’re treated to the thrill of watching a filmmaker come into his own, whose next film will almost certainly star at least one Oscar nominee.

It’s a fitting subtext for a film that’s itself about coming of age. Moonlight is sort of an inner city Boyhood (poor Barry Jenkins constantly had his last film compared to the Sunrise/Sunset series, and this time around he’s cursed himself to another obvious Linklater comparison), a coming-of-age tale told in three parts. The main character is Chiron (pronounced “shy-RONE”), presented, complete with title cards, in his three separate incarnations and the preferred name/nickname of each: Little (as a pre-teen, played by Alex Hibbert), Chiron (as a high schooler, played by Ashton Sanders), and Black (as a grown man, played by Trevante Rhodes).

Moonlight opens with a familiar Jenkins move — a shot in which the camera circles the characters, like a handheld version of Michael Bay’s favorite spinning dolly — but his evolution is apparent almost instantly. The first character we meet is Mahershala Ali as the charismatic drug dealer, Juan. Unlike Cenac’s character in Medicine, Juan feels like a real person right off the bat (as opposed to a stand-in, the amorphous “you”). And while Jenkins gives Miami a depiction similarly specific and affectionate to the one he gave San Francisco in Medicine (he grew up in Liberty City and attended FSU), here that depiction feels appreciative and content, rather than angsty or pretentious. As a non-Southerner, depictions of Southern summers, where shimmering locals languidly go about their business, never moving too fast or talking too loud in deference to the shared swelter, have always seemed romantic. There’s something familial about humidity and overgrown foliage.

Juan gregariously inspects his bag man before retrieving a kid cowering in his stash house, where the kid’s been chased by some rock-chucking peers. Juan’s all patience and warmth as he tries to coax the kid out, get him some food, and find out who he is. In Moonlight‘s first five minutes there’s already a greater range of emotion and fuller characterization than in Medicine For Melancholy‘s entire run. And in possibly the most overt declaration of how far he’s come since his talk-heavy debut, Jenkins chooses as his protagonist a character whose defining characteristic is his abiding silence.

To be sure, “show don’t tell” is a mandate much easier to carry out when you’ve got a crew and a budget. Even so, I have to rack my brain to think of films that combined the personal with the political as well as Moonlight. As Juan becomes Chiron’s surrogate father, it’s not just your typical unconventional mentor narrative (which is weirdly enjoyable no matter how many times I see it). Juan doesn’t just get to play good Samaritan. He also has to reckon with his own complicity in Chiron’s broken home: He’s the one giving Chiron the parental structure he lacks, but he’s also the one selling Chiron’s f*cked up mom (Naomie Harris) the drugs that broke it.

Later, adolescent and grown-up Chiron’s inability to verbalize feelings and accept himself is all tied up with the codes of silence and necessity of cultivating a hard exterior he learned getting his ass kicked in the streets. Dialogue that was frequently stilted and just kind “off” in Medicine is only so in a few moments in Moonlight. If there’s one thing Medicine and Moonlight have in common, it’s that Jenkins’ characters never come to unearned epiphanies or false reversals. This cuts both ways: Jenkins keeps you on the hook because he doesn’t cheat, but at times you may find yourself hoping for crescendos that never come.

At least in Moonlight, this feels like a conscious choice and not indecision, an unhurried style of filmmaking that revels in the moment, with storytelling as languid as a Liberty City summer. We never quite get closure, but it feels honest and kind of poetic that way. Above all, it’s romantic as hell. I can’t wait to see what Barry Jenkins does next.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.