By Jack Dignan
Phenomenal. Truly phenomenal. There have been a lot of great movies released in the last year, and Moonlight is definitely up there. There are few movies out there so real and so bold as this one. There are so few directors willing to do what Barry Jenkins has done here. “This is the story of a lifetime,” reads the tagline for Moonlight, and that it is. It’s a groundbreaking masterpiece of a story, one that everybody should go out of their way to see.
The plot of Moonlight is broken up into three parts, each one revolving around Chiron’s life and journey to discover who he is. We begin his story as a child, known as Little (Alex Hibbert). He’s got a lot on his plate, dealing with a drug-addicted mother (Naomi Harris) and being bullied day in and day out. It’s in this story that he meets Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe), a young couple willing to help Little get back up on his feet. The second story continues Chiron’s story, now played by Ashton Sanders. He finds himself attempting to deal with his sexuality, all before coming together for a third and final story that details the consequences of earlier decisions, Chiron now played by Trevante Rhodes.
Moonlight is a daring exploration into loneliness, masculinity and finding oneself in a world that doesn’t want to accept who he is. “Who is you, Chiron?” is asked to our protagonist at one point, and the quote serves as the fundamentals of what this movie is. It’s a film about one character’s life, the decisions he’s forced to make, the consequences these decisions have, and a journey from a bullied boy into the man life made him out to be. It dwells with familiar themes and sub-plots along the way, but they all culminate to deliver a worthwhile, deeply impactful look at the perils and hardships of being a human being.
Through all its dark subject matter, Moonlight never manages to become cynical. It never looks down at any of these characters, merely delving into their background, their circumstances and their actions. Every decision these characters make, especially Chiron, has a build up. Everything they think has an explanation for its existence, the entire film leading up and shaping him into the man he ultimately becomes. Good or bad, you’ll have to wait and see, but no matter whether or not you agree with some of the actions character chooses to do, the brutal realism is not something you can fault.
This is only the second feature film from writer-director Barry Jenkins, yet it feels like the work of someone who’s been around for a very long time. This man understands the world, his film making that abundantly clear. Whether through personal experiences or merely the lives of others, I don’t know. He’s managed to take what he knows and put it together into a story that’s hit home with a great many people and will undoubtedly hit home with almost all who watch it. The storytelling is subtle and somber, but also powerful, able to express emotion and heartbreak without even needing to use words.
Some of the best moments throughout are where the music takes control, aiding the soundless visuals into a cinematic orgasm of the highest degree. The cinematography alone propels this film into masterpiece territory, each shot able to convey power, treachery and deep character details that no words can describe. The score feels like a contemporary take on classic music, its infrequent appearances making it feel more impactful. A lot of the film is set to nothing but the sounds of the real world, or even silence, and I loved it. The sound design is excellent and believable, not just used as a necessary component, but as a unique element of the story. It’s treated with a lot more importance than other films do.
All of those in charge of casting have done the best job possible, as each cast member elevates this film to new heights. While snubbed at the Golden Globes, the Best Supporting Actor Oscar not only should go to Mahershala Ali, but it needs to go to Mahershala Ali. He doesn’t have the largest amount of screen time, but every moment he’s on screen for is memorable and impactful, and he’s definitely the best part of this film. Naomi Harris transforms herself into a character you don’t normally expect her to play. She delivers a powerhouse performance, serving as an integral and influential part of the story.
Let’s be honest though, the real standouts of Moonlight are the three actors chosen to take on the role of Chiron. Each adds a new take on the character. They each deliver a developed and evolved Chiron, able to retain the same mannerisms and personality within each iteration of his character. The three story arcs tells a different, interconnected and tonally focused story that play into one another. Each actor is able to bring something different and exciting to the table. They’re all so good in so many different ways, no real standout anywhere. They’re all the standout, making this Boyhood-esque vision come to life in the best way possible.
One of the best aspects of this movie, and one that gradually becomes of more and more importance as the film carries along, is Chiron’s relationship to his friend Kevin. In similar vein to Chiron, the performances of Kevin are sophisticated and developed, evolving throughout each story yet staying true to who he really is. There’s a moment early on in the film where the two are playing a game, and the metaphorical imagery lays the groundwork for what’s to come. Their friendship adds an integral layer for the story to move forward, allowing Chiron to discover just who it is he’s becoming. Their scenes together were always brilliant.
To sum up, Moonlight is vital viewing. It deals with certain topics that have been dealt with before, but it deals with them in a new, important and powerful way, telling its story like never before. Moonlight is not a perfect movie, but it’s damn near close, and the more I let it sink in, the deeper I fall in love with it.
4 1/2 Stars
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