Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Alex Hibbert, Anston Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janella Monae
Written by: Barry Jenkins and (story) Tarell Alvin McCraney
Running Time: 110 mins
Release date: 17th February 2017
It is universally accepted that when a film is depicting the struggles of a young black man living in a rough area of America, that there will be shootings and swearing and stereotypes aplenty. Moonlight is not that movie. Although set in a world that has become also a staple for crime dramas, this is a film that depicts another side, where even though a gun or two may be shown, not a bullet will be fired, not a single scene of a drug taking or where the characters, strutting around cussing every other word can be heard. This is a far more poetic, more intense, more touching drama than that.
A story played out in three different timelines and all following the character of Chiron, from a young boy to teenager to man. As a child, Chiron, a small child known as “little” is bullied by his school class, ignored by his crack-taking mother and finds a father figure in Juan, the local drug dealer, who, understanding Chiron loneliness, takes him under his wing so that the boy can use his home as refuge. Only his best friend, Kevin, understands him. As he grows, still the target of bullies, he starts to figure out who he really is, which could make him even more of a victim, until he takes matters into his own hands and grows into a man.
This is a stunning looking piece of cinema. The use of lighting and colour is as important as the characters on screen. Creating almost a mystical shine to this otherwise well-trodden road, the use of neon blues, shimmering yellows and affecting reds helps to create the lost world of Chiron, as he tries to find his own identity. From the moment it starts, the feeling is that of something very different.
Jenkins’ film is a real slow-burner. It allows the characters to fully develop and by having the main protagonist, Chiron, portrayed by three different actors, in three sections of his life, makes us understand how a boy becomes a man. In the same way that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood told the story of a child turning into a man, so does this, except in surroundings that will eventually affect the way he is. Yet Jenkins has a real understanding of how to play out scenes without the usual bravado and bells and whistles. Silence is often golden.
There are several moments throughout this film where so much is being said without a single word uttered. Chiron’s mother, a woman craving for her next hit or her next bed partner, is the most obvious stereotype going, yet in between the moments where she’s kicking the boy out because she has another man arriving, there is an element of love unspoken between the pair. A heartbreaking moment when the elder Chiron is talking to an older Kevin in the diner that the latter runs are filled with unspoken emotions. It is the power of the direction and the performances that really make these scenes hit home.
And yet at the heart of this film is the story of a boy finding his identity. In a world filled with crime and violence, a young man admitting his homosexuality is something that would not only be frowned upon but would possibly lead to his death, so Chiron locks the truth away, from his classmates, his mother, even his relationship with Juan and only his best friend knows.
The performances are exceptional. The three actors playing different variations of Chiron all brings something special to the table. Alex Hibbert as the young boy is particular good, showing a boy filled with confusion, loneliness and longing for a proper family existence, turning to the one man who offers him the father figure he never had. The scene where he is being taught to swim is one of rare beauty. Mahershala Ali as Juan turns the whole drug dealer caricature on its head brings compassion and a quiet tenderness to a role that would otherwise be brutal, unforgiving and vicious. Respected on the streets, yet trying to lead a normal home life, he understands exactly what Chiron needs and tries his best to deliver, without offering him a way out through the stuff he sells.
Finally, there’s a superb performance from Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother. Initially, Harris, known for playing Miss Moneypenny in the Bond films, turned down the role, refusing to be that stereotype female junkie. Thankfully she eventually accepted and brings a vulnerability to the part rarely seen. It’s a tremendous opportunity for the actress and deservedly has been nominated for an Academy Award.
Moonlight is not going to appeal to everyone. It never rushes, it never picks up the pace and it sometimes is spoken so softly that it’s hard to hear some of the dialogue. Yet it’s a strangely satisfying experience that is both heart-warming and full of sorrow at the same time. It’s a film that does demand attention and deserves the critical acclaim it has received. If you like your dramas underplayed, then this will be right up your alley. Intelligent, thought-provoking filmmaking.