WESLEY MORRIS: What is it about watching someone become someone else that has been so mesmerizing for so many people for so long? What is it about a person’s becoming his or her ultimate self that we can’t resist? It’s all-powerful, all-consuming stuff. In life, that consumption can be dangerous. But in art, I want my mind controlled by that power. I want an actor’s skill, intelligence, energy, body and face to overtake me. I love the movie magic of no longer seeing an actor — or especially a star — but a person.
A.O. SCOTT: Me, too. And the best place to surrender to the power you describe is still in a darkened theater, in spite of all the competing performances we can sample on television and elsewhere. The movies still feel larger than life and blissfully distant from it, even as life grows crazier and more improbable than the movies. But the big screen hardly holds a monopoly. Let’s be honest: If we weren’t limited to movie stars here, we might have come up with a list of great performers that included Beyoncé, Donald Trump, LeBron James and whoever we suppose Elena Ferrante to be.
But what’s most fascinating to me about movies now is how many different kinds of acting coexist within the art form. In these pages, we have some people who excel through the discipline of old-fashioned theatrical technique and others who seem less like actors than like unwitting documentary subjects. I marvel at the deep craft that Denzel Washington and Viola Davis wield in bringing to life characters invented by August Wilson (in “Fences”). I also marvel at the apparent artlessness of Krisha Fairchild (in “Krisha”) and Sasha Lane (in “American Honey”), who don’t seem to be pretending at all. Washington and Davis, playing a long-married couple living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, feel like recognizable American archetypes; the characters, at least at first, are as familiar as the people playing them. Krisha (the character) is a middle-aged woman with a history of substance abuse and awful behavior who pays a Thanksgiving visit to her semi-estranged family. Fairchild (the performer) seems so much like that person that you wonder if she might show up at your next holiday meal. Similarly, you can’t be entirely sure that Sasha Lane won’t ring your doorbell selling dubious magazine subscriptions. Each performer pursues, and achieves, a distinct kind of credibility.
MORRIS: Yes, this group of men and women presents a gamut of what movie acting can be and do: knock you out, break your heart, scare you, delight you, amuse and haunt you, whether through vertiginously high style (hey there, Denzel and Viola) or plain-old naturalism. Sometimes the feat is intangible, like the way that Ruth Negga’s eyes and frown, as she plays Mildred Loving in “Loving” — Jeff Nichols’s film about the landmark interracial-marriage case — offer deep reserves of sadness. If Modigliani ever painted the Delta blues, it would look something Negga’s expression in this movie. She doesn’t have much to do in “Loving,” and part of me wishes she were able to get up to more. But here’s a woman who can calibrate a long face so that it has a gravitational pull. And that’s really something.
Negga works in the naturalist style you identified in Sasha Lane and Krisha Fairchild. But it’s funny: I hadn’t thought of Fairchild as practicing naturalism until just now. Fairchild has an arresting beauty — it’s crystal-shop Sharon Stone — and a flair for tragedy that reminds me of Cassavetes-era Gena Rowlands. But part of what makes her so good is the simple surprise of her talent: We had never seen this woman before. In the opening scene, the minute she gets out of that car, takes a few steps and then trudges back to get the suitcase she forgot, I knew I was in for something other than — or in addition to — realism. I knew I was watching a woman wielding a control over her rawness. Her commitment becomes the drama. We’re so absorbed in this woman’s state of mind that the simple dressing of a turkey becomes Hitchcock-suspenseful.
SCOTT: And one of the most hackneyed conceits in all of movies — the family holiday from hell — becomes the freshest, scariest, most electrifying domestic nightmare anyone has ever shot.
MORRIS: How can someone this good have gone unnoticed for this long? There are lots of fresh faces in our group, and some of what makes, say, Royalty Hightower, who is 11, so different from a legend like Isabelle Huppert is that walking into “The Fits,” I really didn’t know where that little girl with the intoxicating studiousness was going to take me. I just knew I’d follow her wherever that turned out to be. We talked at some point about what unites the actors gathered for this issue, and I really do think, whether it’s Hightower or someone we see all the time, like Washington or Huppert, it’s surprise, don’t you?
SCOTT: Yes, we’re used to seeing the same thing repeated everywhere — not only in the entertainment we consume but also in our interactions with the real world. Most of us, most of the time, are content to rest on our assumptions about what other people are like. Online, we traffic in algorithms, aggregations and demographic data sets, the pseudoscientific dressing for old habits of generalization and stereotyping. But a strong performance can smash through that complacency with a force akin to love or friendship, reminding us that the odd, the idiosyncratic, the irreducibly individual still have a place in our standardized and quantified world. We quickly discover that we’ve never seen anyone like this before.
What astonishes me is how many different forms this uniqueness can take, how many distinct techniques there are for arriving at it. Troy Maxson, Denzel Washington’s character in “Fences,” sails onto the screen on gusts of verbiage. He probably utters more words in the first two minutes of that movie than all three of the actors who play Chiron do in the entirety of “Moonlight.” But the character, born in August Wilson’s words, takes life in Washington’s body. Troy’s history — a brutal childhood, a spell in prison, a baseball career and a lot of sex, liquor and manual labor in the midst of it all — is all written in Washington’s posture. Shoulders back, belly forward, all the weight centered in the hips, a kinetic vision of masculine grace and power worn down and gone slightly to seed.
What happens in “Moonlight” is something else altogether. It tells what might have been a standard coming-of-age story, about a young man growing up poor, black and queer in the Liberty City section of Miami. But instead of the usual plot points, the story is fashioned out of moods and emotions, by the flickerings of Chiron’s consciousness and the stirrings of his desire. It’s a three-dimensional portrait in color and sound, and Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes — who play Chiron as a schoolboy, a teenager and a grown man — execute a coup de cinéma that feels to me utterly without precedent. A single soul occupies three distinct bodies.
MORRIS: In American movies, children have often been asked to be hams, to weaponize cuteness and spunk. But you get tired of kiddie kleptomaniacs. You want to see some risks. Now the old European style of acting has happily come into American independent filmmaking: lots of stillness and quiet, these moments of privacy, solitude and thinking, from actors who, to us, are strangers — and often uncannily seasoned young people. Sometimes all that quiet and stillness comes off as bashful, as amateurism. But often, as in “Moonlight,” it’s simply confidence re-engineered. Each of the three chapters in Chiron’s life is handled by a different actor. Plenty of films use flashbacks or prologues featuring a younger version of the protagonist to telescope an adult hero’s journey, and it can be a hokey device for any number of reasons, including misbegotten casting. The coup you identify in “Moonlight” has precisely to do with the brilliance of its casting, and for us, that starts with Hibbert, who plays the youngest Chiron with top-secret assurance. Some actors really are hams. This kid was born with the discipline of a vegetarian.
Hibbert’s a peanut who can sit at a dining-room table or stand in a long shot of an open field and draw you to him. He’s got a serene, self-protectively hardened face that conveys simultaneous hurt and wonder and an awareness that the wonder can hurt. All of that complexity is in the baton that’s passed to Sanders, a very different performer with a very different face, but he amplifies what Hibbert gives him and adds physicality, volatility and grace. Sanders has two scenes that involve walking, and the way he uses each gait to evoke a distinctly different mood of dismay killed me. The director, Barry Jenkins, uses two performances to establish these feelings and experiences, then hands them off to Rhodes, whose final incarnation of Chiron strategically buries all that has preceded him in rock-hard thuggery. I think he has the hardest job. First, you try following Hibbert and Sanders! Second, he has to perform a hardness that we know is an act — he’s got to exude some of Hibbert and Sanders’s innocence. Third, he has to nail a crucial phone call for the movie’s psychological junction to make its thunderous “click.” When he takes that call, the experience of watching what’s happening on Rhodes’s face, in his being, is not unlike finding out that all Charles Foster Kane ever wanted was that sled. That’s so much of the movie right there: three performances snapping into place with one drug dealer’s dropped jaw.
SCOTT: And it’s not just that — as in “Citizen Kane” — the audience is finally understanding something about the character that he already knew. Chiron at that moment is finally understanding himself, and we are witnesses to the unlocking of his inner secret.
MORRIS: A few of these performances rely on a moment or two to unlock what best illustrates a character’s character. I’m thinking about Casey Affleck, Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson. The beauty of what they’ve done with their roles has everything to do with patience — remembering that you’re playing much more than a single, crucial moment — but also to do with an understanding of how real people work, emotionally.
SCOTT: Real people are often emotionally opaque to others and unavailable even to themselves. Perhaps the greatest challenge screen actors face is capturing that opacity. Nonprofessional or untrained actors sometimes have an advantage, because they haven’t been taught