Watching Barry Jenkins’s new feature film Moonlight is like being present at the very creation of the film – not just watching the scenes and performances being captured on camera, but witnessing the conception of it inside the director’s mind. He has filmed and presented it with such spontaneity, and with so thorough a transference of deep subjectivity, that, as François Truffaut once wrote of the films of Renoir, I had to watch it in a theatre a second time just to see if it would turn out the same way. Each shot we see is not merely the canny illustration of burning experiences being depicted and fierce emotions being expressed, but is itself the very expression of them, wrenched from the director’s mind, and arising naturally and spontaneously out of the situation of it being filmed and edited.
Take, for example, the scene playing about halfway through the middle of the film’s three chapters, in which the mother of the main character, Chiron, played by the remarkable British actor Naomie Harris, anxiously greets her son when he gets home one afternoon, and asks him for money (the implication is clear that it’s for more drugs, to feed her addiction). Jenkins has made clear in a large number of interviews and press statements that Harris’s character, Paula, as written by him and his co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and as filmed by him, is based in large part on his own mother. Her scenes in the film play with an especial and tremulous immediacy, and this particular one stands out for a peculiar visual invention as well – Jenkins, in the moment of filming the actor’s performance, got her to play it looking straight into the lens, and shot it at the higher rate of 48 frames per second. (Almost all video you see is shot at 24 frames a second; the heightened speed is a new industrial technological advance, notably used to shoot Peter Jackson’s recent Hobbit trilogy.) The result has the effect of an unnerving and rare proximity to the figure onscreen, intensifying her essence while simultaneously rendering it more opaque. Indeed, throughout the film, Harris’s performance is perhaps the most intricate (while Janelle Monáe takes the crown for distinctiveness, Trevante Rhodes for tender sensitivity, and Mahershala Ali for grandeur).