Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: Moonlight

Everybody rejoice, Hit Me With Your Best Shot is BACK! And boy, has Nathaniel picked a doozy for the first episode of the season: Our most recent Best Picture Oscar Winner, Barry Jenkins's gorgeous Moonlight. In both image and theme, Moonlight is one of the most beautiful movies I've seen in a long time, so beautiful that I was drawn back to the theater to see it a second time, and purchased the Blu-Ray recently. It is a film I hold very close to my heart, both for the story it tells and for how it tells it.

Moonlight - if you've been living under a rock for the past year or so - is the story of a young black man named Chiron. It is told in three parts, each named after one of his alter egos. Part one is what everyone calls him as a child, "Little". Part two is his given name, when he's a teenager, and part three is the name he adopts for himself as an adult, "Black". Identity and perception are the twin strands that run through each of Moonlight's three parts, and Chiron's story is mirrored in that of his childhood friend Kevin.

Kevin and Chiron are two halves of the same coin - Chiron is an introvert, Kevin is an extrovert; Chiron is unsure of himself, Kevin is very self-possessed; Kevin is an optimist, Chiron is more of a pessimist. Kevin innately understands how others perceive him and how important that is, Chiron doesn't really, partly because he's so unsure of himself and who he is. Chiron needs Kevin. And Kevin doesn't realize how much he needs Chiron. It's interesting, though embedded in the very nature of the piece, that we are always more sure of who Chiron is than who Kevin is, even though Kevin is ostensibly more sure than Chiron. Is Kevin gay? Bisexual? Or straight-but-open-to-experimentation? It's completely open to interpretation.

Not that any of this necessarily matters when it comes time to picking my best shot. But there's such a surefit of potential best shots in Moonlight that I don't even know where to begin. I mean, right from the beginning, cinematographer James Laxton does an incredible job of putting us right into the mindset of Little Chiron:

As his tormentors rage outside, the camera bobs and weaves around Little in the darkened room of the abandoned crack den in which he's hiding, making the space seem about to cave in on him. Little feels cornered, not just in the moment, but in his life in general. He has no place to run, nowhere to go when everything comes crashing down around him, as he's sure it's going to.

Each of the three sections of Moonlight contains at least one perfect scene. In the first part, that's the "middle of the world" scene, where drug dealer Juan, who's fast becoming Chiron's surrogate father, teaches him how to swim.

It's a perfect image, because of how it reinforces Chiron's independence: Swimming is a solitary act, especially after the person teaching you how to stay afloat lets you go. And in telling Chiron that when he's alone on the water, he's "in the middle of the world", Juan is telling Chiron that Chiron himself is the middle of the world - that he's the only thing that matters. All he needs is himself and the water.

And sure enough, in the second part of the film, when Chiron is feeling particularly down, he heads for the beach. And you can hardly blame him, when his school practically swallows him whole:

Bronze Medal

And of course, it's there, on the beach, that we get another perfect scene, as Kevin and Chiron smoke some weed, kiss, and...

...I trust that's all I have to say, right? That one image pretty much sums it all up, right?

But in all this talk about Chiron, let's not forget that this is just as much a story about his mother, Paula. Paula seems like a decent parent when we first meet her - she's tough, and wary of Juan, but clearly cares for and worries about Chiron. But it's slowly revealed that she's a drug addict, and puts her needs before those of her son, for whom she has some less than motherly feelings. But, despite all of that, she's blood, the one person Chiron can't shut himself out from, the person he will always have to answer for. And we're reminded of that in the most horrifying way:

"I'm your mama, ain't I?" - Silver Medal
A drugged-up, direct address to the camera, the first time a character has looked directly into the camera in the whole movie. But lest you think this shot is all about performance, at the very end of it, Laxton and Jenkins push it into slo-mo, letting her linger a second longer than she should, a ghostly, haunting visage that will follow our hero around until the day he dies.

The third section's perfect scene lasts for most of its entire length: The reunion of Chiron and Kevin after about a decade or so, in a diner where Kevin is working as a cook. He also happens to look like this:

Soooooooo.... yeah, Chiron doesn't really stand a chance, no matter how many defensive walls he's built up over the years.

I really can't say enough about how freaking amazing this scene is. It's a perfect little one-act play unto itself, one in which lingering gazes and interrupted conversations take on the rhythms of a thriller in the most incredible way.

But in selecting the film's best shot, I had to do the obvious thing that I HATE doing, and choose this, the very last shot, which also happens to be the title shot:

Coming as it does after Chiron and Kevin have gotten back together, after Chiron has made his long-overdue declaration to Kevin, after he has finally admitted out loud, to himself and someone else, who he really is, this flashback to Little Chiron is just LOADED. It's a callback to a story Juan tells about his childhood in Cuba (an old woman said to him, "in moonlight, black boys look blue - you're blue!" to which Chiron asks if Juan's name is blue), and a reminder of who Chiron was when he started on this journey. But it's also a direct address to the audience: This boy could be anyone. You could know this boy. And when he is lost and alone, he could turn to you for guidance. What kind of person are you going to be when he does? Are you going to let him struggle to come to grips with himself all on his own, or are you going to offer him the love and support he needs to accept himself? Will you accept him, or will you turn him away?

This final shot is packed with meaning, offering a beautiful end, but not an easy one. It's perfect.


  1. I loved reading your post because you saw more nuance to Kevin and Paula than I did. Very interesting. The second act of this film is the most gripping for me. It goes so many places and being a bully survivor I related to it quite strongly. I think anyone can relate to this film

    1. Thanks, Rachel! I love the second act - Ashton Sanders's performance is just so moving, watching him go through so much... and that moment at the end of it when he lets it all out... I cheer EVERY. FUCKING. TIME.

  2. My first time reading Hit Me With Your Best Shot, great job.
    I could write a thesis on Kevin, his performative masculinity and the safe spaces he provides for Chiron.
    I fell in love with Moonlight on your Bronze Metal shot. Never have I seen a more lonely shot in a film than Chiron standing in that doorway as the kids stream out around him

    1. Thanks! Kevin is a FASCINATING character - every time I've seen the film I see him differently.

  3. This just really makes me want to go out and rent this right away...excellent review and yes, I rent movies still:)

    1. YES!!! Go out and rent this RIGHT. NOW. You won't be disappointed.

  4. Picking the "best" shot from Moonlight would be so difficult, like you said. Obviously as anyone can tell by the banner on my blog, I loved the hand in the sand shot.

    God this movie is beautiful. I'm going to go stick my DVD in right now. lol

    1. hehe I totally thought of you and your blog when I got to that part. I love how unconventionally that scene is shot, how intimate it is. It really is just the most beautiful movie, and even though I liked La La Land the tiniest bit better, I'm SOOOOOOOOOOOOO happy it won the Oscar.

  5. It speaks to how great the cinematography of this movie is that every shot mentioned in this post is a fantastic one, and I'm still thinking of ten others that I might make my "best shot." The one I would definitely have in the running is the slo-mo shot of Paula screaming the dreaded 'f' word at Chiron. Even as the score renders her inaudible we feel the power with which she's attacking her son's very being. It's a moment that sticks out to and sticks with me. Great post, Dan.

    1. Usually when I do this, I keep a running list so I can go back and cap the shots. It's usually about five or six. This time... https://twitter.com/dancindanonfilm/status/866828013203320832.

      I LOVE that shot of Naomie Harris - the lighting is so expressionistic and harsh and bright in an unexpected way, underlining the importance of that moment for Chiron.