REVIEW: Moonlight (2016)

Release Poster - A24

Release Poster – A24

The following is a review of Moonlight – Directed by Barry Jenkins

Whenever a smaller film becomes the ‘Best Picture’ winner at the Academy Awards, there is a pretty big chance that it will labeled as an overrated film later on. People will watch those kinds of films for the first time, and maybe they won’t be blown away the way they were expecting to be. The general moviegoing audience may encounter these films and question the Academy’s decision to give them that award.

Now, I, unfortunately, had to wait until after the Academy Awards to see Moonlight. So, when I finally got the chance to see the newest ‘Best Picture’ winner, I will admit that I was a bit worried. As I left the theater – still thinking about the film, obviously – I didn’t feel that this was my favorite film of the year. Another 2016 film had already stolen my heart. But make no mistake. Moonlight is a masterpiece.

Moonlight is a coming-of-age drama based on a previously unpublished play (In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue) by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film has a triptych structure with each of the three segments, or stages, providing a look into the life of Chiron from Florida. Each of the three stages features a different actor playing Chiron, but some characters are portrayed by the same actor throughout the film.

Part one – i. Little – introduces us to Juan (played by Mahershala Ali), a Cuban drug dealer, who encounters a small boy, child Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert), hiding from bullies. Chiron is a quiet, shy, and introverted young boy who doesn’t respond to Juan at first.

After spending the night at Juan and his girlfriend Teresa’s (played by Janelle Monáe) house, Chiron finally opens up about where he lives. Although Juan returns Chiron to his mother – Paula (played by Naomie Harris) – they become good friends, and Juan, essentially, becomes Chiron’s surrogate father much to Paula’s annoyance.

Part two – ii. Chiron – continues the young man’s journey. Teenage Chiron (played by Ashton Sanders) is an outsider. He is constantly picked on and bullied, and his relationship with his mother is deteriorating. The final part – iii. Black – reintroduces us to Chiron. Adult Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes) has gone through quite a transformation, and this final look into our lead character’s life is about him returning to see an old friend (played by André Holland) who instantly questions Chiron’s identity.

As it is a film about a young man becoming an adult, Moonlight is being – and is probably always going to be – compared to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – another coming-of-age masterpiece. But these films aren’t as similar as one may think. While I may end up enjoying Boyhood more, it is a relatively ordinary look at a white and straight young man’s experiences.

It doesn’t take a genius to see how important films like Moonlight are. Barry Jenkins here shines a light on the experiences that many films don’t care to focus on. Chiron is a poor, black young man shaped by his environment, who, in trying to be at least a little bit accepted, loses sight of his own identity. In every part of the film, the people around Chiron understand him better than he does.

Bullied as a boy and as a teenager, the very transparent Chiron becomes unable to express his own identity. In the face of black masculinity’s expectations he is seldom able to be intimate with anyone. This is why iii. Black feels so jarring. We go from seeing a young, black man struggling with his own identity and sexuality, to suddenly having a seemingly fully formed individual that both the characters and we, as an audience, are unable to recognize even when he acts as he normally would.

Make no mistake. It is easy to relate to Chiron’s struggles. You don’t have to be black. You don’t have to be gay. You don’t have to be a man. If you have ever struggled with your own identity, sexuality, or role in the universe, then the story Moonlight tells should be at least somewhat relatable. As such, I feel that Moonlight is almost all-embracing in spite of its main character’s specific challenges.

Unlike Boyhood, Moonlight has three different actors portraying its central character. That could’ve been a huge problem, but the shift from child Chiron to teenage Chiron works well and isn’t tough to comprehend or get over. As I mentioned the shift from teenager to adult is jarring, but intentionally so. As such the triptych structure works quite well for the film, even though Moonlight doesn’t have the advantage that Boyhood does by having only one actor playing Mason throughout that film.

I think all three of the Chiron actors do a really good job, and I was particularly happy with Alex Hibbert and Trevante Rhodes’ work here. But as Chiron is quite quiet and introverted for most of the film, those performances aren’t the ones you’ll remember from Moonlight.

Immediately as I left the movie theater, I couldn’t stop thinking about how great both André Holland, Naomie Harris, and, especially, Mahershala Ali were. Both Holland and Ali exude charm and warmth in their performances, and Ali’s Juan is a character that you still feel after his character has left the story.

Juan’s influence on Chiron is seen throughout the film. If there is one thing that truly did bother me about Moonlight, it is that we didn’t get more scenes with Mahershala Ali. Naomie Harris, on the other hand, plays a much more cynical, cold, and sad character. You never get a good impression of Chiron’s mother, but Harris is terrific in the role.

Another strength for Moonlight is its visual style. Moonlight is a product of confident camerawork and filmmaking. No false move is made, so if you’re waiting for Moonlight to make a mistake, then you’ll be waiting until the credits end. Director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton have made a luscious and mesmerizing motion picture that is as impressive and intimate as it is important.

10 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex

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