Even with a story that is contrived, implausible and filled with clichés, Paula van der Oest's Moonlight is an outstanding achievement. It shows us, very literally, that filmmakers may recycle as many plots as they like, for as long as they like, if they present them in a way that makes them seem original. As always, it is not what happens, but how it happens, that counts (I have revised Roger Ebert's oft-stated rule, because "what a film is about," thematically anyway, is in fact often important), and how Moonlight happens is through great visual storytelling.
Within the film's first few minutes, we are able to figure out how the whole story will play out, as it kicks off two familiar scenarios: drug dealers attempt to retrieve their product from the person who's run off with it, and a young girl falls for the boy she's nursed back to health. The two plots combine easily as they unfold into a basic couple-on-the-lam configuration, although not so much in the thriller sort of way. Moonlight isn't a suspenseful or action-driven film, although it isn't slow, either.
Because the story is so recognizable, Moonlight has no need for exposition dialogue, and fortunately its script, written by Carel Donck, is fittingly void of any. Instead, Van der Oest, who was Oscar-nominated for her previous film, Zus & Zo, manages to keep us engaged by showing rather than telling. There is something truly cinematic about opening a film with a speechless sequence (Moonlight's beginning does feature some non-English dialogue, though it isn't subtitled), but it is rare for a modern director to continue through the rest of the film without relying on dialogue. With the slight possibility of missing some non-essential information, one could presumably watch Moonlight on mute and still comprehend everything going on.
The film follows Claire (Laurien van den Broeck), a thirteen-year-old girl living with her adoptive parents in a big house in the woods of Luxembourg, who literally and symbolically becomes a woman when she hides in her family's shed after menstruating for the first time, there finding a young boy (Hunter Bussemaker) who has been shot and wounded. The boy, a drug mule still carrying half his delivery inside his body, doesn't speak any of the few languages spoken by Claire -- including English -- and so the two must communicate without words. In one beautiful scene, which takes place midway through the film, they pantomime their actions that led to their meeting on that first day, repeating and referencing the speechlessness of the film's opening.
Claire tends to the boy's wounds, keeping him in the shed and hidden from her parents, until a time comes when they decide to run off to the city. Along the way they visit a religious shrine, play Goldilocks in a thought-to-be-vacant cabin, indulge in the now-dispensed drugs, hitchhike in cars and sneak rides in trucks and eventually run into the bad guys. For much of the trip, the boy is disguised as a girl; later Claire cuts her hair short (the final step to becoming a grown-up, apparently, considering how many films include it) and ends up looking like a boy. By the time they consummate their love, their silence and near-identical appearance makes it hard to tell who's who, as they roll around in the dark rear of a van. Considering the fact that the sex scene could never have been filmed in America, it is a moment that displays a complete abandonment of prejudice.
Much of the film works because of Van der Oest's impressive direction of the young leads. While watching Moonlight, I was reminded of a wonderful Polish film called I Am (aka Jestem), which screened last year at the New York Film Festival. Aside from having a similar setup to this film, I Am also featured remarkably talented child actors, talented in that natural way that doesn't come off as creepy like the unnaturally mature young actors that we currently have in the States. In Moonlight, Van den Broeck isn't amazing just because she acts well, but because she acts like a thirteen-year-old well -- and not because she was thirteen at the time the film was shooting, but because she actually immersed herself in a character that happened to be the same age as herself. It is actually surprising how few young performers are able to believably play their own age. According to the film's press notes, Van der Broeck prepared for her role in a way that resembled method acting.
As for Bussemaker, there isn't anything tremendous about his performance, but his stone-faced silent act (he doesn't speak English, so he has even fewer lines than Van der Broeck) is certainly fitting. He's like Buster Keaton without the stunts or the comedy. The character is interesting because he is so passive and he follows Claire's lead, and yet he's the impetus of all the action in the film. It isn't an innovative kind of role, but considering that in most American on-the-lam movies his part would be the chattiest on screen, his lack of dialogue is refreshing, and slightly ironic.
Moonlight could very well play as a silent film, but then it would lose its music soundtrack, which aids in the changing of its tone. Beginning with the relaxing sound of Claire playing the piano, the film continues with occasional, scene-appropriate music, such as the loud, fast techno that accompanies Claire and the boy as they arrive in and run around the city. Besides, visual storytelling may be the true purpose of cinema, but without sound, a film is still imperfect. And so, in combining great visual storytelling and a relevant amount of dialogue and music, it would seem that Moonlight is a perfect film.