Chronicles the life of a black American as a child, a teen, and an adult.
Barry Jenkins, 2016
This film follows Chiron at three points in his life, when he goes by three different names: as a child, Little (Alex Hibbert); as a teen, Chiron (Ashton Sanders); as a young man, Black (Trevante Rhodes). Little is bullied at school, and he escapes to a crack house where he encounters drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Little refuses to talk to Juan, who tries to help the child by giving him a meal and a place to stay for the night along with his partner Teresa (Janelle Monae). Eventually Juan brings Little home to his drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris), who struggles with single parenthood to the point that she neglects and verbally abuses Little. His only escape is in playing with his friend Kevin (Jaden Piner at 9/Jharrel Jerome at 16/Andre Holland as an adult). The teenage Chiron continues to struggle with bullying and his own sexuality, tortured at school and lacking a safe place to go home to thanks to the escalation of his mother’s drug addiction. Chiron and Kevin have one good night together, but eventually the violence is too much for Chiron to take. As an adult, Black finds himself reconnecting with Kevin despite the different paths their lives have taken.
This movie FUCKED. ME. UP. It’s so, so good, so emotionally resonant and universal while also being so specific to this one person’s experience and journey through life. It’s heart-rending and brutal and tender and so, so damn good, so beautifully brought to render in every single element of filmmaking that if it doesn’t win Best Picture at the Oscars this year it will be an outrage. Walking out of the cinema after seeing Moonlight was like reentry into your home country after a long trip; you have to readjust to real life, having completely escaped into another world, to another person’s perspective, for a while. This film has so much to say about the lives of black boys in America and the cycle of violence, the damaging effects of toxic masculinity and internalised homophobia, and the power of human connection. It does all this without ever feeling preachy or even particularly intellectual. It’s all inferred through naturalistic but poetic dialogue and beautiful cinematography. Each of the three segments has a slightly different look and feel, but the film is still one cohesive piece. The first act is drifty and handheld, soft colours reflecting the dreamy quality of childhood memories; act two is all harsh contrast and jittery camera motions, reflecting the quiet Chiron’s inner turmoil; act three is bright colours and still close-ups, calm and closure. Barry Jenkins builds the film so carefully and cleverly, a slow build that leads to a powerful final act. The cleverly compiled soundtrack compliments the score, eliciting all the right emotions at the right times.
My one, relatively minor, complaint about this movie is that the actors who play Chiron and Kevin at different ages all look entirely too different to even be convincingly related, let alone the same person. They could not look less alike. However, the entire acting team on this film is so incredibly strong that it almost renders that point moot. Everyone in this movie is knocking it out of the park. Mahershala Ali has a powerful influence on the film despite his relatively short screentime, creating an image of the problematic role model that Chiron has to live up to. Naomie Harris is the connecting tissue between the three segments, playing out the difficult relationship at three very different points in her life but recognisably the same person in each stage. The teen and adult Kevins are terrific, portraying the charismatic extrovert in such a way that we’re drawn in just as much as Chiron. The team of actors playing Chiron are really the stand-outs, though, the character’s quiet nature forcing them to give subtle, powerful performances. The team of Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland bristles with chemistry. The scene where they meet in a diner, which plays out entirely in words unsaid, glances and almost-smiles and surprise revelations, is impossible to tear your eyes away from; by the end of the film you’re completely transported. This isn’t just the best film of 2016, it’s one of the best films in a decade.
Moonlight on IMDb