Two months after it clinched the Best Motion Picture of the Year award at this year’s Oscars, Moonlight has finally reached our shores. Director Barry Jenkins’s second feature film is a sensitive portrait of Chiron, an African-American man struggling with his gay identity as he grows up in a rough Miami neighbourhood.
We follow Chiron through three pivotal chapters in his life: When he’s a bullied child who finds a caring mentor in the form of a drug pusher named Juan (Mahershala Ali); an awkward teenager who is caught in between his violent tormentors at school and his mother Paula’s (Naomi Harris) crack addiction; and a hardened vice criminal making peace with his past, which includes reconnecting with his childhood ally, Kevin.
Based on the Tarell Alvin McCraney play, Moonlight is an exquisitely filmed urban tale about finding one’s place in the world. Visually, the alluring close-up shots of the characters’ faces, sometimes caressed by swirls of smoke from a lit cigarette, and the vivid colour palette are reminiscent of films by contemporary masters like Wong Kar Wai and Pedro Almodovar. In fact, Jenkins has said that he considers Chunking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000) among his favourite films of all time.
While most movies depicting life in America’s housing projects veer towards a grittier, almost documentary style of filmmaking, Moonlight’s artistry, which includes striking imagery and an evocative music score, is a distinguishing factor. It is a visual urban poem.
It’s certainly not the first – Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) is another film that manages to seek and tease out the beauty that exists even in hard-knock lives – but such an approach, in movies dealing with social hardship, is rare.
I’m also in favour of the narrative style that focuses on three milestones in a person’s life rather than ploughing through the whole thing from A – Z. So while the languid pace gives the characters (and the audience) sufficient time to process their poignant exchanges, the film never feels bloated.
And what a cast! Never have I seen a film in which every actor is so charismatic and mesmerising to watch. Ali received an Academy award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for his portrayal of young Chiron’s father figure, Juan. His restrained and nuanced performance is deserving of the accolade.
Also deserving praise are the standout performances by the three actors who play young, teen and adult Chiron, as well as another three actors who play young, teen and adult Kevin. For each character, the three actors are able to seamlessly channel one soul.
Another distinctive feature to note is how Moonlight not only puts African-American characters front and centre, it is dedicated to the individuals from this community and the issues close to their hearts. You will not see a single Caucasian person or people of other races in this film. It’s a tender tribute to black lives, which sends a resounding message that they matter.
There are no convenient labels and no easy answers in Moonlight. Every character is complex – they are multifaceted and are equally capable of being good and less than ethical.
This deeply moving film is clearly one of the year’s best films so the Oscar statue went to the right folks after La La Land was mistakenly announced as the winner. Glad they sorted that out fast!
Can’t fight the Moonlight! Will you catch this stunning film now that it’s finally here?