Moonlight is one of the most poignant, poetic and beautiful movies of the year.
As a kid growing up in Miami, Chiron is withdrawn, introverted and frequently picked upon by his peers for reasons that he doesn’t understand. Upon a chance encounter, Chiron crosses paths with a crack dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) – who proceeds to take the young boy under his wing, in the absence of Chiron’s father and with his mother Paula (Naomie Harris) struggling to care for herself, much less her son. Over time, however, Chiron grows up into a troubled teenager, still bullied by other students and struggling to forge an identity for himself.
Years later as an adult, Chiron lives in Atlanta and makes his way as a drug dealer, earning himself the nickname of “Black” thanks to his intimidating manner and physique. However, when a chance for Chiron to rekindle ties with his childhood friend Kevin (André Holland) presents itself, so too does the opportunity arise for Chiron to find something he has long yearned for: a chance to live the life that he truly wants for himself.
Barry Jenkins hasn’t served as the director on a feature-length movie in the eight years since the release of his acclaimed directorial debut, Medicine for Melancholy, in 2008 – having instead worked on a number of short films, over that period of time. As suggested by his efforts on Moonlight, the filmmaker has also spent the past decade or so honing his craft as a storyteller, in order to deliver one of the true critical darlings of 2016. The praise is well-deserved here too as, put simply? Moonlight is one of the most poignant, poetic and beautiful movies of the year.
Moonlight, which Jenkins wrote based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, is divided into three acts titled “Little”, “Chiron” and “Black”, corresponding to the name/nickname that Chiron goes by in the different stages of his life – all three of which make for engaging and compelling coming of age stories, even taken on their own. Together as a whole, this narrative structure allows the film to create a snapshot of Chiron’s life that fully encompasses how he is shaped by the important events that happen to him, in an (sometimes uncomfortably) intimate yet insightful and meaningful fashion. Jenkins favors a show-don’t-tell approach here, allowing for more intimation on the part of the audience and trusting that they can fill in the blanks without needing heavy-handed exposition to bring them up to speed at where Chrion is at in his life, at any given moment in the film.
The three actors who play Chiron in Moonlight – Alex Hibbert as the young “Little”, Trevante Rhodes as the grown-up “Black” and Ashton Sanders as the teenaged Chiron – further help to establish the sense that the film is following the continuous evolution of the same human being, though their performances. This allows Moonlight to seamlessly illustrate how Chiron goes from being a soft-spoken child to sensitive teenager and then an adult, whose macho posturing and hardened exterior come off as natural defensive responses to his past (and even a quiet reflection of his only father figure). Moonlight is all the more effective as a thematically-layered character study for it, allowing it to sensitively shine a light on the plight of a social outcast not often depicted in mainstream film; at the same time, exploring themes of masculine identity, as well as the shortcomings of traditional definitions for masculinity.
Moonlight brings Chiron’s tale to visually-poetic life through gorgeous lighting and raw cinematic imagery (captured with indie film-style long takes and handheld camerawork) – though some of the most dramatic and emotionally-charged moments are photographed in a more polished, yet equally striking way. This makes the movie’s world feel vibrant, alive and sometimes even volatile, like the Chiron character himself. Jenkins and his director of photography, James Laxton (Camp X-Ray) make frequent use of closeups to further ensure that the scope of the film remains intimate and personal (even during its most intense and visceral sequences) and that the movie itself is a somewhat literal portrait of Chiron’s life. Moonlight‘s visuals are complimented by its use of an eclectic soundtrack that includes a classical-style score composed by Nicholas Britell (Free State of Jones), as well as retro tunes and contemporary pop songs.
The supporting cast here also does its part to make Jenkins’ film something special. Mahershala Ali (who, between Moonlight and Luke Cage, is having quite a year) and André Holland deliver soulful and, at times, even heartbreaking performances as Chiron’s protector/would-be father figure and his first lover in Moonlight, respectively. Naomie Harris as Chiron’s drug-addicted mother, Paula, threatens to come off as an abusive parent cliche at first, but develops into a fully-formed and believable character over the course of the film, thanks to the combination of sensitive writing and Harris’ performance. Janelle Monáe as Juan’s girlfriend, Theresa, is somewhat under-used but makes for a kindly and charismatic presence during her few scenes with the Chiron character.
Thematically rich and anchored by quietly-powerful performances, Moonlight is simply a terrific movie in addition to being an impressive creative accomplishment for Jenkins – one that resonates by pulling viewers into the feelings and experiences of its protagonist, in the process delivering a subtle gut-punch that lingers well after the final credits are done rolling. Its arthouse sensibilities mean the film won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but those who are intrigued to find out what all the talk is about (and/or want to keep up on their awards season viewing): Moonlight is a must-watch.
Moonlight is now playing in a limited theatrical release. It is 110 minutes long and is Rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout.
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