And the hits keep on a coming. Gotta admit, it felt good last week to see three movies in a row that are all now contenders for my Best of 2016 list. Although I must say that I got WAY more recommendations for Moonlight than the other two, and after seeing it I began to understand why. While it may not be for everyone, I can definitely recommend it as an experience to see life through a fresh perspective.
We follow three important periods of time in the life a young Black man named Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert for his boy age; Ashton Sanders for his teenage; and Trevante Rhodes for his adult age). Each actor portrays the character when he was just a boy to being a teen and being a man as he begins to explore his own sexuality and reconcile it with an environment trying to hurt him. This coming of age tale is unique because of three things: 1) it’s rare to see a movie about a young gay kid growing up in an impoverished neighborhood; 2) it’s rarer still to see the sort of transition from Chiron; and 3) it’s even rarer that a film could go over all of this and STILL be good.
The movie opts to tell it’s tale in a very quiet, subdued manner by introducing Chiron as a shy, introverted boy who does far more listening than he does talking. He’s depicted as grappling with his sexuality and he has hardly anyone to latch onto to discuss these complex feelings, so you get to know more about Chiron through what few people he can talk to. What I also appreciate is that the film keeps itself focused on a small number of characters in the three portions of time depicted. Each of these portions are separated in the film by its own title card referring to the identity others have marked Chiron for. What’s also interesting to me is that each section could be it’s own stand alone short film, and we’re watching Moonlight as a compilation of the pieces in chronological order. But the other sections still feel necessary to be seen together given how each moment in Chiron’s life affected him going forward.
In the first section, we’re introduced to Chiron running away from bullies and meeting Juan (Mahershala Ali), a Afro-Cuban drug dealer living in Miami. Despite his commanding presence, Juan strikes up a fatherly relationship with the boy since Chiron’s own mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), verbally abuses him constantly and neglects raising him. This introduction sucked me entirely because of Ali’s performance, and I will fight anyone who says he doesn’t deserve an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Ali is absolutely stunning here acting opposite of young Alex Hibbert, providing guidance to the boy and offering a gentle voice to Chiron to open up at his own pace. In one beautiful scene on the beach, Juan teaches Chiron how to swim while having a deep talk on what it means to be a man and discovering his own identity. This monologue has stuck out in my mind as one of the most memorable I’ve seen all year thanks to its simplicity, its thoughtful message, and a sterling delivery from Ali. While he’s only in the film for the first third, he’s left a lasting impact on me and I believe he’s going to have an effect on several audience members as well.
Before I forget, Naomie Harris did a very admirable job in her role as well, especially because her character is omnipresent in every period of Chiron’s life. Harris also has to pull double duty as being despicable and pitiful at the same time as Chiron’s neglectful mother, which is incredibly difficult to do without going too far into either direction. But Harris performs her role wonderfully as she’s first introduced as a controlling force partaking in addictive pleasures before we see her character a shell of what she once was later on in the film. Finally, she’s absolutely crucial to a painful but necessary moment between adult Chiron and his mother as they take stock of their mutual history and work towards some forms of reconciliation.
The second part of the film delves into Chiron’s teenage years, and this portion of the film dives headfirst into the young man’s sexuality. While the first portion offered hints that Chiron was attracted to boys, the second part of the film is all about him recognizing who he’s attracted to and his relationship with his childhood friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). Without wishing to spoil, there’s a scene in which Chiron gets an opportunity to experience his first kiss and sexual experience in a very intimate way with someone that was awkward and touching at the same time. The way the scene is shot both respectful and artistically pleasing to the eyes, while no doubt providing a much different experience most film audiences would see. Echoing my feelings about depicting sex in The Handmaiden, this is a film that shows you how to discuss the subject in a mature way that still gets you into the mindset of your main character, while also understanding what lead him to this point.
But the end of the second part of Moonlight features an absolutely devastating ending in two scenes entirely carried by Ashton Sanders. Really trying hard not to spoil shit here, but what transpires is absolutely heartbreaking to see what is done to our protagonist, a scene that likely many teens and adults like Chiron have experienced in real life. But what really kills it is Chiron’s decision on how to proceed after this horrible moment, that radically alters his life and shocks the audience thoroughly.
The final part of the film follows our main character now as a man, and you suddenly appreciate the two previous parts of the film more as you see how small interactions have affected Chiron’s life in the present. Not only do we get closure to the aforementioned arc with Chiron’s mother, but we also get closure to the relationship between Chiron and Kevin. Incidentally, both actors (Trevante Rhodes and André Holland respectively) deliver a truly memorable duet as these men are portraying old friends encountering each other for the first time in years after a truly painful event seen in the second part. Rhodes does an excellent job portraying the culmination of experiences that lead to the man now known as “Black,” after previously being known as Little and Chiron. But Holland seals this movie with a regretful character trying to put his best face forward and try to understand what became of his former friend. The scene at first is hard to watch, but as the conversation wears on between the two characters, the walls of time break down and you start to feel a little hope for our characters. While I think Ali stole the show in the beginning the film, Holland does an excellent job in allowing the movie to end on a high note with his performance and his final moments with Chiron.
While the stakes are low in this movie, Moonlight opts for an intimate discussion on growing up in a harsh world with what was (and sometimes still is) a stigma. You get the know this small group of characters and see how small acts of kindness and hatred have drastic changes in the coming of age of a man. And all credit for weaving this tale together is courtesy of a relatively unknown director and screenwriter, Barry Jenkins, who commands his film with the skill of an auteur that knows how to deliver a truly memorable experience for his audience. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention his use of my hometown Miami, Florida that didn’t feel tacky by focusing exclusively on South Beach. You see the inner portions of Liberty City, the metro, and a quiet Cuban restaurant that feels like a product of someone from my place of birth rather than some tourist like Michael Mann.
Really can’t think of anything negative to say, which is perfect for me. As a critic, while I enjoy beating up a film that was a chore to watch; I find way more pleasure in gushing on and on why some films just make me feel sad, happy, and amazing. And Moonlight meets that standard with flying colors. Sitting on my Top 5 of the year as of writing this review, it’s also likely to stick around for the Top 10 of 2016. This is getting a very high…