A film review by Craig J. Koban December 10, 2016

RANK:  #7


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  The opening chapter introduces us to a chronically withdrawn and sad young boy named Chiron...or "Little" (mostly because of his small stature and is meek manner).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 about him.  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. 



The second 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 classmates.  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 have achieved.  Patience is required from viewers while watching MOONLIGHT, but it's 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 films.  Take, 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 sexuality?  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 compassion.  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.


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