Moonlight Review

Posted: December 8, 2016 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

moonlight-posterWritten by Daniel Simpson

Recently, I worked on a project which, in part, dealt with the significance and proliferation of coming of age movies. Thing is, while there are a lot of coming of age movies, most tend to deal with the same demographic. Namely, straight middle class white dudes. I’m not dismissing these types of people or their stories, in fact there are several films which match this description that I love, but such a narrow focus does limit story possibilities. There are a lot of other experiences you only get when telling the stories of other groups. Some films have tapped into this recently, perhaps most notably Blue is the Warmest Color, which drew a very interesting portrait of a young woman struggling with her sexuality while going from teen to young adult in Paris. Now, we have another coming of age film about a young person struggling with their sexuality while growing up, this time the focus being on a young black man living in the Miami lower class. This film is called Moonlight and it’s one of the year’s best.

The film is divided into three episodic sections, each detailing a different part of the protagonist Chiron’s life. The first depicts Chiron when he is a young boy (played by Alex Hibbert) with an absent and neglectful mother (Naomie Harris). By chance, Chiron comes into contact with a low-level drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan takes on a father-type role for young Chiron, who is shy and underestimated by his peers thanks to his small size and quiet personality. The next timeframe of the film focuses on Chiron’s high school years (played by Ashton Sanders) where he is a victim of bullying and is also beginning to experiment sexually. It is best to leave the events of the third act vague, but suffice it to say it picks up with an adult Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes) and we finally see what sort of man has been made by the upbringing witnessed.

Moonlight’s episodic structure can probably be compared to that of Boyhood, but Linklater’s decision to drop in year after gave his film more of a narrative flow. Now that I think about it, Moonlight might in fact be closer to another Linklater work; the Before trilogy. Like those films, Moonlight skips a lot of years between episodes while what went down during that time is hinted at and inferred. Despite what might seem a broken up narrative, Moonlight does have a very clear linear progression and character growth. The parts of Chiron’s life highlighted are not random, but are pivotal points in the man’s growth. Part of what makes the film so fascinating is simply seeing the pieces of Chiron’s life and how that informs his growth. Additionally, writer/director Barry Jenkins does a great job finding the drama in Chiron’s life while also keeping things restrained. There are in fact a number of over the top/melodramatic paths this kind of story could have fallen into, but Jenkins sidesteps this nicely.

The three actors who play Chiron all do a great job building a singular character who changes greatly over the course of the story but nonetheless remains recognizable and consistent. I’d be tempted to highlight Trevante Rhodes’ work as being especially good, but admittedly he has the advantage of playing Chiron when he’s at his oldest and most complex. In any event, all three actors do fine work and each deliver some powerful moments. Naomie Harris has also got a lot of attention for her performance as Chiron’s troubled mother and for good reason. Harris is the only performer to appear in all three segments and while she maybe doesn’t have a lot of screen time, she more than makes up for it in some really impactful scenes. Harris’ devotes herself to this role fully and finds sympathy in the character. It’s easy to play the role of a crack addicted mother as either too evil or overly sympathetic, but Harris finds a great middle ground. She also has her own arc in the film and while we don’t see all of the steps, it’s certainly rewarding in its own right. Mahershala Ali (best known for his supporting role on House of Cards) is also really good as Juan and I was also impressed with the various actors who played Chiron’s childhood friend Kevin.

Barry Jenkins is still a relatively young director and Moonlight is only his second film. I haven’t seen his debut (Medicine for Melancholy) but he shows a lot of promise with his sophomore feature. In addition to the quality performances and the well-crafted story, Jenkins brings a lot of flourish to the proceedings. The cinematography also makes great use of the Miami location with the use of bright lights really emphasizes the heat and while the film doesn’t have a very high budget it still looks pretty sharp. In general the film features some really strong cinematography, interesting shot choices, and Jenkins even adds some extra style to certain scenes when necessary, either through colour shot speed, or shot length. Perhaps most importantly, Jenkins nails just the right tone for the film, which is serious and even dangerous, but ultimately gentle and touching.

All told, Moonlight is clearly great. It’s a powerful film made with skill and one which really resonates. The only criticism I have is that I don’t really think the story is over. While the ending is certainly emotional, it also doesn’t feel like a proper close to Chiron’s tale. I can’t help but feel like there is more to say, in fact I kind of hope Jenkins and Rhodes re-team to further explore this character in the future. Perhaps I’m just being greedy, but I found myself just a little unsatisfied by the end. Regardless, Moonlight is one of the best films of the year and anyone interested in serious cinema should give it a shot.

A-

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