Synopsis – A timeless story of human self-discovery and connection, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.
My Take – Society forces us to ask some important questions like who are we? Are we who we want to be? Or are we the sum of what other people wish we are? Whenever asked, this list of pretentious questions make us somehow feel violated, however, the truth is that in this day & age it has become quite difficult to answer them. This critical darling, and Oscar hopeful, stands as one of the very best reviewed films of 2016; and it will likely earn multiple Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture), mainly as this may very well be a breath of fresh air to others who are tired to death of our culture’s obsession with labeling and categorizing everything in an attempt to understand it, If it can’t be easily categorized, it’s either frightening or something to be opposed to, or it’s abnormal and therefore something to be marginalized. Just like, Boyhood, the 2014 Richard Linklater film which took twelve years to make and followed a child from Texas from childhood through his first college year, this is a film that deserves to be seen without knowing too much about it because it showcases a story from characters not seen enough in film. It’s an important film not because it draws attention to race, but because it reminds the audience that skin color shouldn’t be a factor in filmmaking. Loosely based on Tarell Alvin McCraney‘s unproduced play entitled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”, the story follows a black man growing up in Miami from childhood to adolescence, and finally adulthood. Divided into three distinct sections, we are 1st introduced to Chiron (Alex Hibbert), a small, quite boy also known as Little, who seems to get no joy from life. He has only one friend, a boy named Kevin (Jaden Piner), and is constantly bullied by the other kids. Chiron’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris) alternates between neglecting and verbally abusing him. Little ends up meeting a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who becomes like a father figure & encourages him, with the help of Juan’s kindly girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), at whose house Little sometimes also gets a meal and has a place to sleep when things get especially bad with his mother.
As a teenager, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) remains as joyless and nearly as quiet as he was when he was known in the neighborhood as “Little”. His mother has become even more desperate and pathetic, and the bullying continues, but with more severe consequences. Chiron maintains his relationship with the few positive influences in his life, especially Teresa and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who are the only two people who seem to really understand Chiron and accept him for who he is, until something terrible happens. Few years later, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now going by the nickname ‘Black’ which was given to him Kevin in their teenage years, lives in Atlanta as a drug dealer, whose business is slowly picking up. Still in touch with Teresa & his now healing mother, Chiron lives a quite life alone until he receives a call from Kevin (André Holland) requesting him to come down to Miami again & visit his restaurant. First, I must applaud Barry Jenkins on his firm direction. Director Barry Jenkins is not afraid to be poetic, to guide his film away from conventional storytelling and offer his audience something to connect to in their own way. The way his camera roams around is sensually magnificent; he knows when to cut to the next shot and when to linger a few seconds longer. But above all else, his ability to add an extra texture to each scene is awe-inspiring; it’s more than just style for the sake of style; it’s essential to the film’s argument. The film is not just about a black man figuring out his sexuality, but about how identity takes time to discover, something almost (if not) everyone can relate to. The film grips you from the very beginning even though it’s not an easy film to watch as it portrays the struggles many black men face growing up in marginalized neighborhoods, in other worlds, its survival every day. The main conflict at the heart of this beautiful film is about a young black man’s coming of age in poor and drug-afflicted Miami, is our protagonist’s inability to define him in terms that his environment will allow. He doesn’t fit into any of the categories available to him, so he sets out to force himself into one that seems like the best option. And for the main character, it becomes evident from the very beginning that his struggles will be augmented due to the difficult predicament he was born into. But this film does have a human and universal story that everyone will be able to relate to. The message, no matter where you come from, you can always overcome your adversities and turns things around as there is always an opportunity waiting for you. There are some extremely depressing parts in this film involving the second act which nearly made me tear up and there are some sad parts in the 1st and third act as well. I absolutely love the open world atmosphere the film creates which many films try to do but don’t succeed where as the film succeeds at sucking you into its dark world. Some of the long tracking shots most notably the opening scene is filled with realism and beauty and it sucks you into the characters and the world. There are some parts where the film asks you what would you do If you where Chiron? It puts you in the place of Chiron which I found brilliant. The way director Jenkins shoots everything gives characters and places an extra texture, how he’ll show two people by a beach at night becoming closer together naturally over minutes that feel pregnant with meaning. The visual flavor is not like other motion pictures you have seen. Everything about the camera-work is flawed: the image jerks all over, the image spins in and out of focus, the white balance is off, but you know what? It works. If done unintentionally, this would appear to be the work of any amateur who’s never touched a camera before. But director of photography James Laxton orchestrates these imperfections to match the disorder of Chiron’s desire for self- discovery.
Nicholas Brittel‘s (The Big Short) soundtrack matches the troubling look of the picture to help you hate the people that Chiron would want dead. To use the word ‘sensitively drawn and performed’ may be a cliché, but sensitive is the only way I can think to describe it. This isn’t to say it’s melodramatic, far from it; when we get the bullies that come at Chiron, it feels raw and immediate, like something could pop and violence could erupt at any moment. Sometimes, it seems, it does. A small piece of advice is given to the boy by the drug dealing father-figure (no one else in his life fills that role, and he doesn’t realize at first he is a dealer): no one can tell you who you are; you have to figure that out for yourself. Director Jenkins revisits the recurring motif of Miami waves throughout the film, and they begin to shape the film’s form and heartbeat alike. All three acts of the film possess moments of tenderness, optimism and heartbreak, sometimes simultaneously. It speaks to the fragility of life for Chiron, who has the bare essentials to rely on but little else, and how so often the things that leave the biggest imprints on our lives are both good and sad. We even get a sense of just how true this through the only other character who appears in all three acts, Chiron’s mother, who even though in a fairly small role is able to give a full sense of the mother’s journey too. With gentle but propulsive editing, Jenkins lolls back and forth between the formative events of protagonist Chiron’s life, drifting between calmer spells and moments of agonizing hope (learning to swim; a tender, seaside first kiss) with the gentle cadence of a seaside swell, amidst a perennial undercurrent of trauma. Director Jenkins‘ flair for naturalistic pacing is effervescent, dwelling on the vibrancy of moments, while leaping years forward in time, excluding seminal events in Chiron’s life, perfectly bottles the lyrical dreaminess of memory. What took Richard Linklater more than a decade to accomplish in 2014’s “Boyhood,” Jenkins does in a film that’s an hour shorter and was shot in something like three weeks. Carefully unpacking the truth in each glimmer of cliché, Jenkins courts sympathy, not empathy – this is Chiron’s story, not ours, and our job as audience is to bear witness. And this job, thanks to beautiful work by Jenkins and his talented cast, is nothing short of an honor. Jenkins‘ screenplay is pretty much flawless. He structures the film beautifully with each segment following an established path that gives the central character in the film a completely natural character arc. Jenkins‘ trust in visual storytelling and muted emotions is all the more impressive adding enormously to the character’s emotions and allowing the little bits of dialogue to carry all the more weight. The three actors playing the central protagonist at different ages (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) are all terrific – emoting the loneliness of the central character brilliantly through their eyes and body language. All the supporting actors are integral here as each of them adds another layer to the film and the central character’s journey. Despite small roles, André Holland and Mahershala Ali are especially memorable in their performances of character’s that add immense humor and heart to the story. Naomie Harris gives yet another standout performance. Janelle Monáe, Jaden Piner & Jharrel Jerome are also likable. On the whole, ‘Moonlight’ is an artful and subtle film backed by a powerful screenplay & excellent performances.
Directed – Barry Jenkins
Rated – R
Run Time – 111 minutes