Moonlight

moonlight-movie-poster

Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Barry Jenkins

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

There’s a moment late in Barry Jenkins’ new film featuring a blown-out Naomie Harris desperate for a cigarette, in the way a recovering crack-addict is desperate for a cigarette. Her violently trembling hands fail her, prompting the assistance of her son, for whom she has spent a lifetime erecting an emotional and psychological prison due to her abusive, drug-induced behavior. He lights the tip, mom takes the first blissful drag. The moment seems pretty innocuous in the grand scheme of things but this I promise you: I will never forget this scene. Never.

Quite frankly, it’s one of many such scenes buried in Moonlight, a by turns brutal and beautiful drama inspired by a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. I will never forget that title.

Nor will I ever forget what it has inspired. This is the story of Chiron, by all accounts a normal kid born into some less-than-ideal circumstances in the rough suburbs of Miami. I couldn’t help but weep for him, even when he ultimately becomes something that probably doesn’t want or need my pity. As he endures psychological cruelty at the hands of his mother Paula (Harris, in one of the year’s most stunning supporting turns), and physical torment from his peers who interpret his quiet demeanor as weakness, he also finds himself grappling with his own identity vis-à-vis his sexuality.

The narrative is presented in an inventive three-act structure that details significant events in his life. Chiron is portrayed by different actors in each segment, ranging in age from 8-ish to twenty-something. Each chapter is given a different label (you should bookmark that term) that corresponds to the way the character is referred to in these eras. Nicknames like ‘Little’ and ‘Black’ not only function as reference points in terms of where we are in the narrative but such descriptors reinforce Jenkins’ theory that people are far too complex to be summed up by a simple word or name. These segments also bear their own unique cinematic style, most notably in the way color plays a role in advancing the film’s themes. Blue accents subtly shift while the camera remains fixated squarely upon the flesh and blood of its subject.

Epic saga has the feel of Richard Linklater’s 12-year experimental project Boyhood but whereas that film relied on the literal, actual growth of its main character, Jenkins hires actors who ingeniously play out different phases of life all the while working toward building a congruous portrait of a gay African-American male. Throughout the journey we are challenged to redefine the labels we have, in some way or another, established for ourselves and for others. Moonlight implores us to embrace not only all that makes a person a person, but that which makes a man a man.

While each actor is absolutely committed to the same cause, all three bring a different side of the character to the forefront. From young Chiron’s hesitation to engage with others — most notably a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) — as demonstrated by newcomer Alex R. Hibbert (who plays Chiron in the first segment, ‘Little’), to the seething anger that has accumulated in the teen form (Ashton Sanders), to the post-juvie gangster Chiron “becomes” (now played by Trevante Rhodes) we are afforded a unique perspective on multiple cause-and-effect relationships, be they of parental or environmental influence. The trio of performances complement the moody tableau in such a way that the entire experience manifests as visual poetry.

But unlike poetry, much of the film’s significance is derived from what is literal. Jenkins’ screenplay is more often than not deceptively simple. The genius lies in how he rarely, if ever, resorts to techniques that provide instant gratification. There are no big showy moments that tell us how we should feel. We just feel. More perceptive viewers will be able to sense where all of this is heading before the first chapter even concludes, but it won’t be long before others come to understand that, as is often the case in reality, this person has been conditioned to become something he deep down inside really is not. Rhodes is perhaps the most notable performer not named Naomie Harris, as he is charged with presenting the cumulative effect these external influences have had on his life, and thus the most complex version of the character. Much of Rhodes’ performance is informed by façade — in this case that of a thug.

Beyond well-balanced performances and the sublime yet subtly artistic manner in which the story is presented, Moonlight strikes a tone that is remarkably compassionate. Were it not for the abuse he endures, this would be something of a romantic affair. Perhaps it still is, in some heartbreaking way. Large chunks of the film play out in almost complete silence, the absence of speech substituted by a cerebral score that often tells us more about what’s going on inside Chiron’s head than anything he says or does.

Other factors contribute to Jenkins’ unique vision — a leisurely but consistent pace, motifs like visits to the beach and Juan’s drug-dealing, the running commentary on the relationship between socioeconomics and race, homosexuality as a prominent theme — but the one thing I’ll always return to is the mother-son dynamic. ‘Little’ deftly sums it up as he begins to open up to Juan: “I hate her.” ‘Parent’ is not a label that currently applies to this reviewer, but the sentiment still nearly broke me. But more than anything it moved me — not so much as a lover of cinema, but rather as a human being. What a movie.

naomi-harris-in-moonlight

5-0Recommendation: Heartbreaking drama will doubtless appeal to lovers of cinema as well as those searching for something that’s “a little different.” If your experience with Naomie Harris has been limited to her Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig-era Bond films, wow. Have you got a surprise in store for you. Breathtaking work from the Londoner. Breathtaking work from a director I had never heard of before this. The wait was well worth it. It would have been worth the three-hour round-trip drive I almost embarked on in a desperate attempt to see the picture weeks ago. Then my local AMC picked it up. Thank goodness it did. (And guess what else it just got? Loving! Yay!) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “You’re the only man who ever touched me.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

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22 thoughts on “Moonlight

  1. Pingback: #OscarsSoPredictable | Thomas J

  2. Pingback: The 2016 Digibread Awards | digitalshortbread

  3. Oh boy, I cannot wait to see this. What a fantastic review mate; you’ve officially got me beyond excited to see this. It’s between this and La La Land for my most anticipated. Come on!

    • I’ve got a date set to see La La Land this week and I’m just aching to see that. The reviews have been universally stellar. Like they have been for Moonlight. I gotta say man, the praise started raising concerns for me but when I saw this, I finally understood. It’s brilliant. Hope you enjoy it!

  4. What more is there to say? One of the very best films of 2016.

    P.S. Don’t give away that Oscar just yet! Michelle Williams was pretty excellent in Manchester by the Sea.

    • I was blown away. It will break your heart but will ultimately reward your mind. Such a refreshing film, I really hope you get to see it my friend.

  5. SO happy I caught this a few weeks ago. Glad you caught too what I opined in my thoughts. There are moments and scenes in this movie I will never forget (the “baptism,” the school fight, the nighttime car ride back to the apartment). Visceral. That is power. And man, I can’t wait to see more out of this cast, especially Rhodes. He was amazing for a guy who hasn’t had much practice!

    Up to this point, my favorite of the year.

    • All those scenes you mentioned are some of my favorites as well; the schoolyard fight was brutal to watch but it was so pivotal. And Chiron’s response to it was just entirely unexpected.

      This movie is so incredible, I’m actually juggling it with a few others for my #1/#2 position right now.

  6. Great review, and I agree with your first paragraph completely. There are so many little scenes in the movie that have stayed with me long after viewing. Boyhood is total shit in comparison to Moonlight, in my opinion.

    • I thought Boyhood was excellent as well. Both films tap into a kind of intimate space that few “mainstream” or more standard Hollywood dramas are allowed to.

  7. I kinda just skimmed your review because I don’t want to be spoiled but it’s a very well-written review Tom! I don’t check out your site often enough 😛 Seems like everyone is in love with Moonlight and I can’t wait to watch it!

    • Hey, no apologies necessary man. I’m even worse when it comes to visiting yours. I’ll be sure to fix that.

      Moonlight has become quite a popular item amongst critics. I wasn’t sure it would “live up to the hype” but for me it kinda sorta surpassed them. So well acted, so well shot. So lovingly crafted.

    • Ruth has some good taste in movies and I believe she too gave it perfect marks. 🙂

      Nice pun btw. And glad you loved Hell or High Water; as I start to compose what could be my last Digibread Awards post, I am going to struggle to put together my 8 Tastiest list. So many good things are going to qualify. There might be a lot of honorable mentions this year . .

  8. Glad to hear your local AMC shows this! Man I wish more theaters showed this masterful film. ‘…brutal and beautiful drama’ indeed, I wept for Chiron, even more so when he was an adult trying to hide his identity behind this big, muscular man in order to *protect* himself. That’s what made the revelation at the end to his friend Kevin even more heartbreaking! Phenomenally-acted throughout, and nice to see Naomie Harris got a meaty for once. Glad we agree this deserves a perfect score, Tom!

    • Naomie Harris blew me away! She just blew me away, so intense and so cruel in this movie. Hard to believe she was Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig Bond films, isn’t it?

      Agreed about Chiron as an adult, too. That was really sad to see and yet it rings so true to life. There is this cause-and-effect relationship we see develop that feels very natural, as heartbreaking as it is. I feel there are so few movies where we get to watch a cause-and-effect relationship that is at once predictable and entirely effective.

      • Hey Tom! I’m just mulling over the Golden Globes noms to post later tonight. Glad to see Naomie got a nom, along w/ Mahershala. Both are fantastic, so well deserved!

  9. Sounds great, and at least you didn’t have to undertake that journey to see it. I’ve heard a lot of good things about this and I’m really looking forward to seeing it.

    • Stu — it is phenomenal. I think you’ll really dig in to it. It’s such a moving film about a character we rarely see in movies. And never ever in Hollywood!

      I’m smelling a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Naomie Harris. She was brilliant.

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