Released: 17th February 2017 (UK and Ireland)
Length: 111 Minutes
Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae and Patrick Decile
Depending on the perspective, telling a story based around race and the society it inhabits can be a daunting line to walk; some films fall into the trap of stereotypical representation while failing to provide a full picture. Showing unwavering maturity and dedication towards authenticity, Moonlight breaks out of oft-mishandled territory to deliver a rich, captivating tale of one person’s journey through life.
Told across three chapters, Moonlight follows Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes respectively) as he struggles to grow up in a run-down area of Miami; between his neglectful mother (Naomie Harris), bullies who hound him at school and the endless pressure to maintain a strong masculine image, the protagonist goes through a great deal of hardship while trying to figure out just who he wants to be. It’s very much a film about identity and how that notion of self can be shaped and twisted over a lifetime; as Chiron goes through many pressures, the film captures this so vividly while incorporating themes of sexuality, parenthood and the expectations of black culture into the narrative. You get the sense that the place environment Chiron grows up in is very disconnected from other parts of the city, tough and unforgiving. While it is mostly based within character interactions, the film fixates its gaze on the main character, never shifting aside or bringing in any unnecessary material; because we never leave Chiron’s perspective, every scene lands with the right amount of emotion and nuance and the slow pacing only adds to the passage of time as we watch him grow up, only to be met with new obstacles.
With an all-black cast, Moonlight delivers a far more complex and deeper portrayal of what are often clichés or archetypes. All three actors playing Chiron deliver heaps of emotion, encapsulating the struggle he has with self-acceptance. As a boy, his eyes are often downcast and he is often unwilling to speak up, through his teenage years he feels out of place and as an adult, he appears to have given in to the external forces around him. An immense amount of sympathy is generated for the protagonist; you’re pulled into his viewpoint and able to understand every action he takes, which often ends up getting him into trouble. Often his only means of support is often a few select individuals around him. Mahershala Ali plays the Cuban drug dealer Juan. His part in the film is fairly small but the paradox his character possesses as a father figure to Chiron is succinctly presented; he feels obliged to support the boy where he can but also has flaws of his own that get in the way, a very multidimensional character. Similarly, Chiron’s mother Paula is equally well-portrayed; her addiction to drugs and time with prostitution are only interrupted with brief glimpses of affection, demonstrating the massive void between her and her son. Even Chiron’s closest friend Kevin (also played by three actors: Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland) is subjected to the same peer pressures and the consequences of those strain their friendship immensely. Every character in Moonlight is tremendously realized; each contributing to Chiron’s life in varying ways and deepening his personal journey even more.
Moonlight differs greatly from contemporaries that have covered its topics. Unlike the gritty tone of 1991’s "Boyz N the Hood," director Barry Jenkins sought to portray the setting as well as the characters in as realistic a manner as possible, focusing more on the day-to-day life of the society. With this comes an intoxicating effect that brings the audience fully into the fold; you feel as if you’re with these characters, walking the path they take, only stopping when the film dips to black between each of its three chapters. This is done through several methods of presentation; intimate point of view shots put across the individual perspectives, zeroing in on the intense facial expressions. Visually, the camera switches between several styles to personify the characters and their mannerisms, alternating between smooth panning and an uneasy shakiness that ties in beautifully with every scene. The setting of Miami is used in a minimalistic way, serving as a backdrop to direct more attention towards the main performances. For Chiron himself, voices and images become distorted as his anxieties rise, emphasizing the sheer confusion he faces growing up and the music also reflects this; mellow pieces present a figure adrift, unable to find the freedom to be himself. Lighting is one of the film’s more outstanding achievements; much of the film takes place at night, away from the intensity of the tropical sun, thus creating a relaxed tone alongside the natural sounds of the ocean. The lens Moonlight casts over the life of a black man placed against a rough upbringing and even rougher environment is sincere and lovingly crafted.
Moonlight is beautifully shot, wonderfully acted and imbues its narrative with a grounded feeling that is superbly focused on telling a real story with real human characters. It stands out in a medium populated with endless blockbusters and is more than worth your time.
Rating: 5/5 Stars (Exceptional)