By Cristian Mendoza (Phoenix, Arizona, USA)
Moonlight is directed by Barry Jenkins, and stars Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes (who both play the role of lead character Chiron). Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland (who both play the character of Kevin) costar.
This film shattered me. It left me absolutely speechless and lost for words as I walked out the double doors of the theater that night. For the rest of the night after seeing that movie, it just stuck with me. It’s been two months after seeing it, and a part of me is still astounded and floored by the sheer, visceral impact that this film delivers 100%. Critics and audiences around the world are absolutely lauding this movie. It’s definitely not hard to see why. This film is a magnum opus. It is a masterpiece, and it is the by far the best film with an all-African American cast that I have seen yet. As the 89th annual Academy Awards air next week, and as I watch and rewatch all of these incredible films, this film, so far, definitely one of the nominees that sticks out to me the most. While La La Land still remains my favorite of all the Best Picture nominees this year, that definitely doesn’t mean that I should dismiss and disregard the beautiful, haunting, emotionally enthralling piece of art that is Moonlight.
The film is based on a play called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The story revolves around the life of young Chiron (whom Tarell’s life is based on). It is split into three acts (i. Little, ii. Chiron, and iii. Black), and jumps three generations, telling Chiron’s story as a young boy, a teenager, and an adult man. As Chiron grows up, he struggles to discover who is really is. The story starts off with him at 10 years old. He comes from a very rough upbringing, and lives a very harsh life in Liberty City, an impoverished neighborhood in Miami, Florida. His father is out of the picture, and he lives with his neglectful and emotionally abusive mother, Paula (played by Naomi’s Harris, who gives a potent turn in her portrayal of a broken woman), and is constantly bullied at school for his short size and quiet personality. He befriends a well-respected drug dealer named Juan (played by the always brilliant Mahershala Ali), who becomes a father figure to Chiron.
Although Juan is morally conflicted with his occupation as a drug dealer, he is well-meaning and takes Chiron under his wing. The only other people who show Chiron kindness through his young life are Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (played by the vividly talented Janelle Monáe), and Kevin, Chiron’s friend. As Chiron turns 16 years old, Paula’s drug addiction becomes worse, and Chiron is left on his own to figure things in his life out. He begins a secretive, bicurious relationship with Kevin. During which, he becomes constantly tormented by other peers in his class. He struggles with his identity, trying to unmask his tragic reality and struggling to accept himself for who he is. When Chiron becomes a full-grown adult in his late 30’s, he finds himself in the same occupation that Juan was in, and becomes a drug dealer.
Without giving too much of the final act away, Chiron attempts to come to terms with the harsh, biting reality that he has lived, and the life he has been given in the emotionally driven finale. This film reminds me a bit of the Richard Linklater film Boyhood, which was released just in 2014. That film also has a similar story of a young boy growing up, while searching for who he is, in life as he grows older. However, when comparing the themes in this film, and Boyhood, they couldn’t be anymore different. While Boyhood did have its humorous moments and upbeat tone, this film is far more dark and realistic.
This is a near-perfect film. From its direction, to its performances, its story, its cinematography, and its score, this film is still receiving enormous praise for its realism and sheer beauty. Director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton work pure magic. There is never a wasted shot in this film. Literally every shot, every action, every line of dialogue, and every detail is essential to the film. There is an exquisite sequence in which Juan teaches Chiron to swim. The score, along with the camera and editing allow for a slow-paced, but gorgeous moment in modern cinema. This film has the best use of lighting that I have seen in a film this year. Laxton’s choice of lighting give the film an essence of the challenges that Chiron faces. Darker shots give intense moments in the film a more subtle, but evocative feel. Nicolas Britell’s score is also very haunting but elegant at the same time.
(NOTE: The next paragraph does include a bit of political commentary and input. Please skip the next paragraph to continue with the review.)
The film’s best aspects for me are the fleshed-out characters, and the core of the film’s story. The film presents a strong message, timely themes, and even quite a bit of social commentary that I believe should be present in a lot more films these days. Despite last year’s “Oscars So White” controversy, ironically enough, this year marks the most African American Best Actor/Actress and Best Supporting Actor/Actress nominees in Oscar history. In addition to Moonlight, Fences and Hidden Figures also, in a way, have similar themes of African American characters in difficult environments, time periods, and situations, attempting to live their lives, and rise above their current plights. This film, in my opinion, is the best of those three Best Picture nominees this year.
This film does a very difficult, but successful job at tackling the subject of young African Americans going up in impoverished environments, often being given little opportunity to grow, or even be loved. Chiron’s arc is the most complex aspect of the film. A young man struggling to seek acceptance in an environment that refuses to sympathize with him, or even turn an eye to him is a very disturbing reality. Given the fact that throughout the story, he has very few people in his life to care for him, he turns to a life that he didn’t want to turn to himself. In a way, it was almost given to him. His homosexuality puts him at an ever greater risk if anybody else were to find out. His character is given a very emotion story arc, and we grow to become greatly connected to his character.
The only minor complaint that I initially had with this film was a nitpick. I did wish that Mahershala Ali has a lot more screen time than he was given. He does an absolutely tremendous job playing such a great character, and I do wish that they gave him more time in the film (he’s in it for only the first 40 minutes). However, upon second viewing, I realized that it was better that his character wasn’t given more time in the story. Anthony Hopkins was only in Silence of the Lambs for less than 20 minutes, and his character served a major purpose in the film’s story. Just like Hopkin’s character, Ali’s character serves a purpose. Juan can be seen as a guardian angel in Chiron’s youth. It is in this period of Chiron’s life that he has some form of guidance in his life. It is through Juan that Chiron at least has a bit of a leg to stand on. MINOR SPOILER AHEAD: When Juan dies in the story, it symbolizes the fact that although we have a speck of direction and somebody to care for us, fate comes for everyone, even in times of need, and even when we really don’t wish for it to. This is another abrasive theme that the film presents.
To conclude, Moonlight isn’t a film for everyone. This may not be a film that every audience member will enjoy. It is a slow-moving, complex character study with a depressing story, and a haunting atmosphere. Through this, the film is able to reach deep emotional heights that I believe a lot more movies should have. Don’t expect to get a feel-good movie if you see this. However, if you wish to see a film that challenges your perceptions of another person’s life, and wish to see yourself in another person’s shoes for an hour and 52 minutes, then I definitely recommend taking a look at this brilliant, melancholic masterpiece for your eyes and mind to feast on, and beg for more long after the credits roll.
My final rating: A+