2016, No MPAA rating, 110 mins.
Mahershala Ali as Juan / Shariff Earp as Terrence / Duan'Sandy' Sanderson as Azu / Alex R. Hibbert as Little / Janelle Monáe as Teresa / Naomie Harris as Paula / André Holland as Kevin
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins / Based on the play by Tarell McCraney
There have been many films well before Barry Jenkins' MOONLIGHT that have dealt with what it means to be black man living in America, but very few have dealt with it as compellingly as his film does.
Adapted from the
play of the same name by Tarell McCraney, MOONLIGHT eloquently and
powerfully explores the multiple stages of one man's life - from childhood
to adolescence and then finally to adulthood - and his attempts to define
himself and understand his place in the world around him.
The film constantly reminded me of Richard Linklater's masterful
BOYHOOD in the way that film also focused on a coming of age tale of one
person throughout his life, but MOONLIGHT has different ambitions and far
different dramatic stakes.
It provides insights into the microcosm of the male African
American experience in a manner than avoids overused clichés and crude
stereotypes, which is ultimately what makes it so hypnotic and rewarding to watch.
The film is
carefully and lovingly constructed in three chapters, each one focusing on
one section of the main character's life and each one emerging as so
undeniably moving that they could all individually work on their own as highly
effective short films.
Each chapter also bares a title that references a nickname that the
character has during that stage in his life (whether he likes it or not).
The opening chapter introduces us to a chronically withdrawn and sad
young boy named Chiron...or "Little" (mostly because of his
small stature and is meek manner).
As the film opens he's living a friendless life in Miami and is
being chased into an abandoned hotel by some bullies and is found by a
local drug dealer named Juan (THE
FREE STATE OF JONES' wonderful Mahershala Ali), who displays great
sympathy for the boy and takes him home to feed and find out more
Unfortunately, the shy Chiron says little, and when Juan
does return him home we meet his deeply troubled and emotionally unstable
mother (a never been better Naomie Harris), that ironically appears to be
addicted to the crack that Juan sells.
Even though Chiron's home life is volatile, he finds unusual solace
with his father-son-like bond he develops with Juan.
chapter flashes forward several years and re-introduces us back to Chiron
(Ashton Sanders), now a teenager, but still soft spoken, deeply
internalized, and the subject of ridicule and abuse by his local
He does have one friend in the form of Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) that
he grew to know as a child. Chiron's mother has become more hopelessly
lost in her chemical addictions, and with Juan long since out of the picture Chiron
is left to fend for himself.
It's at this tender and delicate stage that he also begins to grasp
his closeted homosexuality, which he keeps a tightly held secret out of
fear of being accosted by some extremely rough schoolyard hooligans.
The chapter ends with Chiron learning to become more self
actualized and confident, but this transition also regrettably leads to
his life taking a decidedly darker path for the potential worse.
The final chapter
of the film explores Chiron as an adult, who has now become mentally and
physically a completely different person than he was as a younger lad
(now played rather memorably by Trevante Rhodes).
Frankly, he's almost unrecognizable compared to his former mousy
self: He's bulked up considerably and has become fairly ruthless minded,
which has a lot to do with the fact that he's following in the footsteps
of Juan by pedaling drugs on the streets of Atlanta.
He receives a fateful call one day from his old friend Kevin (Andre
Holland), who now works in his hometown as a cook.
Responding rather quickly to Kevin's invite, Chiron speeds off back
home to Miami to reconnect with his old friend that he become somewhat
tragically distanced from due to an event back in their high school days.
MOONLIGHT is a
sumptuously beautiful film on a purely visual level, seeing as Jenkins and
cinematographer James Gave experiment with color grading to give each of
the film's chapters their own unique look and feel, which helps segregate
themselves apart from the other.
Miami almost becomes a secondary character in the film as an
influential element that unavoidably dictates how Chiron becomes a man.
Complimenting the film's oftentimes stunning visual palette is
Nicholas Britell's hauntingly beautiful music score that evokes a
melancholic symphony at times.
Overall, MOONLIGHT has a dreamlike quality that serves the film
rather well, which is also fitting seeing as Chiron himself is frequently
shown dreaming and/or having nightmares throughput the story.
Beyond being a
technically assured director, Jenkins also places an intrinsic amount of
innate trust in his audience: MOONLIGHT is a slow burn affair that,
initially at least, takes time to build towards something meaningful, but
when it does - especially during some of its more heart wrenching moments -
the film hits high dramatic crescendos that few other films from this year
Patience is required from viewers while watching MOONLIGHT, but
paid off handsomely and frequently if you allow yourself to fully submit
to Jenkins' purposely modulated and understated choices here.
Jenkins also has a laudable mission here to portray his black
characters in manners that haven't really be done before in mainstream
for example, the character of Juan.
We've seen countless cold and detached drug dealers in films
before, but Juan - as do many other characters in MOONLIGHT - subvert our
expectations of such movie troupes by surprisingly emerging as a calm
spoken and warm hearted paternal figure in Chiron's life that clearly
cares for him.
The way Jenkins utterly dismantles genre formulas and clichés by
giving us flawed, but nevertheless richly delineated characters of
atypical depth is MOONLIGHT's most noteworthy achievement.
And how many
other films out there exist that tap into what it's like to grow up as an
African American in the projects while also dealing with confusion over
MOONLIGHT taps into some very sobering and universal themes that
just about any viewer - regardless of economic, class or ethnic
background - can certainly relate to: the daily struggles of fitting it
with your peers, the struggles of personal identity as you mature in life,
the oppressive struggles of bullying and so forth.
Yet, MOONLIGHT takes it a step further by exploring what it means
for a black man to be...a man...and one that also grew up in abject
poverty, in a hellish home environment with an abusive parent, in a world
polluted by drugs and racial inequality...and all while being gay.
It's so bloody rare to see a film that tackles the weighty issues
that are at the core of MOONLIGHT and with such restraint, tact, and
There is an inherent bleakness to Chiron's story arc, but the film
concludes with a hint of ambiguous hope for a better future.
MOONLIGHT is a
treasure trove of intoxicating performances.
Naomie Harris in particular is astounding playing her deplorably
abusive mother that desperately wants to love and care for her son, but is
incapable of doing so because, deep down, she's incapable of loving or
caring for herself.
Mahershala Ali is also a standout here playing the very tricky role
of the criminal minded crack dealer that also is a mentor like voice of
caring reason in Chiron's early life (so many moments between Juan and
Chiron have a hushed power because Ali is an performer that's above camera
mugging and grandstanding: he inhabits his roles with a serenity and plain
spokenness that's not the stuff of theatricality that appeases Oscar
voters, but he certainly deserves awards recognition for his work here.
The three actors that portray Chrion as well are so uniformly and
thanklessly stellar for embellishing upon the performances that precede them
in the narrative.
They may not look physically alike at all, but these actors all feel like
they're playing the same person, just at different life stages.
MOONLIGHT just feels more personal and intimate than so many other films that hit the multiplexes, and it's uncommonly wise in its observations of its main character that tries to eek out a life the best he can while placed within oppressive circumstances that would crush the spirits of most healthy and sound people. I don't come from the same background of Chiron and many of his dire struggles growing up were not my struggles, but I deeply empathized with him and could relate to his uncertainty about the future and how hard it is to develop a fully realized sense of self. Great films should act as portals into lives not fully seen before. MOONLIGHT is indeed a great film and, unlike so many other cinematic offerings lately, it invites us in to observe its characters with an compassionate eye, regardless of their station in life or regrettable transgressions.
If only more films did the same.