Review: ‘Moonlight’

Who are you? It’s a question you’ve been asked or you have contemplated, this I am sure. Your identity and the quest to find where you fit in the world gradually shifts with time. Where you are as an adult is vastly different than when you were a child, or even as a teenager. The paradigm of nature versus nurture also can not be overlooked in shaping us as people. Knowing this we have Moonlight a film that presents a story about identity and belonging that is as powerful as it is timeless. Filmmaker Barry Jenkins takes common, universal themes and offers a fresh perspective. On the surface it may appear to be about people who are different than you physically and sexually, but look closer in the mirror: the reflection is you.

Moonlight is the portrait of a poor boy living in a predominantly black neighborhood in Miami. The three, 40-minute chapters that comprise the narrative show him as a boy growing up into a man. His name is Chiron. Those who know their Greek mythology know Chiron to be a most gifted centaur, especially as it pertains to nurturing. No correlation or reference is made but his naming is not an accident. There’s more to him than just the color of his skin.

The struggle of identity is the overriding theme and it is apparent from the first time we meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert) in grade school. Taunted with the nickname Little on account of his size, Chiron runs from bullies that are out to thrash him because of his weirdness. Escaping the pack in an abandoned apartment complex, Little is scared and out of breath. When the older Juan (Mahershala Ali) comes to his rescue, Little remains silent. Juan is the neighborhood drug lord, yet his intimidating demeanor seems to wash away in the presence of Little. Where dispensing crack is replaced with dispensing kindness. As someone who struggles to put more than three words together, Little reaches a point where he trusts Juan enough to ask him what it means to be gay.

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As a teenager (Ashton Sanders), Chiron retains a soft-spoken sensitivity. Still subjected to cafeteria hazing and threats of violence, he keeps mostly to himself. He has one friend, Kevin, but dares not share personal secrets, instead masking his emotions with masculinity. As Chiron tries to understand his sexuality, the choices he makes in retaliation and out of love take on a weightier importance when he reaches adulthood.

Now a man (Trevante Rhodes) Chiron goes by Black. No longer little or lanky, years behind bars have transformed him to become a physically imposing presence. Chiron looks like his father figure Juan but he carries a false identity. Around others he presents a tough exterior. Alone he shrinks inward, his muscular frame no match to carry his heavy emotional baggage. When he receives a call out of the blue it leads to a reunion that allows for arousal of past feelings.

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Moonlight is a profound and deeply moving film. Barry Jenkins keeps the dialogue minimal in allowance for the visuals and moments of silence to spur the story along. James Laxton’s camera work and color palate is strikingly effective in evoking a sense of character. The way the camera lingers for certain shots or having actors peer directly to the camera, seemingly looking right into you, adds to the emotional resonance. Of particular note is a few instances of baptismal imagery of Chiron being submerged in water, either with guidance or his own accord. Adding to the exquisite imagery is a vivid soundtrack highlighted by Nicholas Britell’s original composition and selected tracks that include rap, Latin, and classic pop and R&B tracks, including one that is so perfect in placement that it will make your heart ache.

Moonlight
is more about race and sexuality. Those who take the plunge will spend two hours watching one of the most memorable films of the year. A bleak subject bolstered with gorgeous imagery, Barry Jenkins’s film is an uplifting yet sobering experience. Moonlight is more than a story about a little boy trying to find his place in the world. This film is us. Each and every one.

Score: 9/10

Director: Barry Jenkins
Writer: Barry Jenkins (based on the play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue” by Tarell Alvin McCraney)
Cast: Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert, Janelle Monae, Naomie Harris, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland
Rating: R (for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout)
Running Time: 110 minutes

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