By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Insightful and tender in a way few modern films aspire to be, Moonlight is an extraordinary triumph, crafted by a seriously perceptive film-maker who amazingly has made only one other feature film to date. Offering rich visual metaphors along with its sensitive, unsure characters, this is the finest American film released in recent years.
Beginning in 1980’s Miami, the elegantly gliding camera introduces us to Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer feared and respected by everyone in the area. We soon see that Juan controls the illegal-but-profitable trade in this particular neighbourhood, where a new narcotic called Crack has exploded on the market.
Elsewhere we encounter ‘Little’ (Alex Hibbert), a ten year-old boy who is continually bullied at school. Fleeing from the group’s latest assault, ‘Little’ (the nickname given to him by his tormentors) finds refuge in a run-down building frequented by addicts, and it is here he meets Juan. Overcome by feelings of helplessness and severe angst, ‘Little’ won’t utter a word to this imposing adult, so the dealer, who has no idea where the boy lives, takes the troubled kid back to his own luxurious home. Living with Juan is his partner Teresa (Janelle Monae), who seems far more patient in negotiating the boy’s self-imposed silence.
‘Little’ slowly starts to open up to the two, and when Juan is able to take him home, he is confronted by Paula (Naomie Harris), the boy’s drug-addicted mother, who is immediately suspicious of Juan’s background and motivations. His personal life offers little respite, with ‘Little’ constantly on the receiving end of his mother’s demeaning insults and drug-fuelled mood swings.
There is something happening within however that ‘Little’ can’t quite comprehend, an intangible sensation that makes him feel like an outcast to his fellow male students. This search for identity, combined with his unstable home and school environment, continues to haunt ‘Little’, now called Chiron (and played by Ashton Sanders), during his teen years, and a series of events perceivably sets this lonely adolescent on an all-too-familiar path. A decade later, and answering to the nickname ‘Black’ (this time portrayed by Trevante Rhodes), we see the life he has chosen to lead, one that is both cyclical and unfulfilled.
Moonlight captures its three time periods with brilliant focus and clarity. The examination and exploration of this evolving character is thoughtful, intelligent, and honest. Screenwriter/director Barry Jenkins challenges his audience to invest in this person’s plight, to break through his hard, agitated shell in the same way certain characters around him are trying to do. Jenkins’ faith in us pays off, with a journey that moves and enlightens.
Working within a sub-genre that has unfortunately become stereotyped and clichéd, Jenkins radically subverts the very nature of the African-American gangster film, breathing life and humanity into the type of characters who now sadly proliferate within B-grade action flicks and parodies. Along with Kicks, which also scrutinises a similar world from an unusual perspective, Moonlight should be applauded for treating the material with care and reverence, and its complicated, consequence-laden structure results in a compelling narrative that emotionally hits home throughout.
In adapting Tarell Alvin McCraney’s acclaimed short play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Jenkins concentrates on the intimate, awkward, and compassionate, words not normally associated with streetwise gangsters and angry youths. In a world which can be cruel, violent, and highly destructive, the need for love and friendship still remains, and whether he is called ‘Little’, Chiron, or ‘Black’, this is a person who, like all of us, just wants to discover who he truly is, and that the possibility of finding a heartfelt companion does exist.
Jenkins’ direction is equally attentive, applying a delicate touch to a story that has more than its fair share of thorny situations and confrontations, and the sixteen year time frame is masterfully framed and detailed. Helping bring Jenkins’ vision to the screen is James Laxton’s exquisite cinematography (who lensed the director’s 2008 debut film, Medicine for Melancholy), Nicholas Britell’s perfectly compiled music score, and Joi McMillon and Nat Sanders’ judicious editing.
Performances are absolutely superlative, lifting an already excellent production to the next level. Rhodes, Sanders, and especially Hibbert, excel as ‘Black’, Chiron, and ‘Little’ respectively, encapsulating his anguish and soul-searching at various ages with complete conviction. Monae is quietly trusting as Teresa, while Harris (Skyfall, Southpaw) is practically unrecognisable as the unreliable Paula, easily producing her best work to date. Stealing the film comprehensively is Ali, who is a tower of strength and contradictions as Juan. In spite of being involved in activity that is thoroughly reprehensible, one that destroys the lives of many that make up his community, Ali (Hidden Figures, House of Cards) deftly adds a sympathetic, almost father-like dimension to someone we assume wouldn’t be capable of possessing. It is a star-making turn that should catapult him into the big time.
While La La Land is receiving nearly all the awards attention, this is by far the better film, and should win the 2017 Oscar for Best Picture. It wants to affect audiences in a unique manner, deconstructing what we’ve previously seen on screen in the best way possible. After enduring a number of mega-budget Hollywood duds throughout 2016, it is again the small, independent feature that conquers, blowing their financially privileged counterparts away. Great film-making is still occurring in the U.S., and Moonlight is a prime example of this exciting talent pool, with Jenkins using minimum financing to deliver maximum results.