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Film Review: Moonlight (2016)

A young, black, homosexual boy named Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) struggles with masculinity and sexuality while growing up in Miami under the cruel abuse of school bullies and a drug-addicted single mother (Naomie Harris). Best Picture winner Moonlight is a film in three acts, with each one taking on a different stage of Chiron’s life—from childhood to adolescence to adulthood—and with a different actor portraying him for each stage.

With a trio of seamless, affecting, and internal performances, Chiron’s well-trod tale of tragic hardships retains a quiet poignancy. Marked as an outsider by his peers because of his silent nature, tiny stature, and nascent sexuality, Chiron deals with alienation along with the prevalent troubles of his lower-class neighbourhood via his home and school life. Early on, however, he receives a lifeline in the form of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer, and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Both offer Chiron safety and understanding, especially Juan. He takes on the role of father figure, teaching the young boy how to swim and claim his own identity. Although Juan’s physical presence in the film is small, he makes a crucial impact in Chiron’s life. (And, of course, Ali recently won a historic Oscar for his supporting role.)

Chiron’s friend Kevin is also played by three actors (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland of The Knick. RIP). As children, Kevin encourages the much-bullied Chiron to stand up for himself. In high school, Kevin is the only student who speaks kindly to Chiron. Their bond becomes complicated after a sexual encounter that neither has time to process before peer pressure results in a violent fight involving Chiron, Kevin, and a vicious group of bullies. Chiron’s entire confrontation with the main bully throughout the second act has to do with his difference in blackness, masculinity, and sexuality compared to the other African-American teenagers around him. The bully attacks Chiron for the way he dresses (regular jeans instead of baggy pants) and acts (meek and uncomfortable). At the end of part two, however, Chiron reclaims his identity, reacting shockingly and brutally to the bully’s many attacks against him.

In the final act, Chiron has grown up and become a drug dealer in Atlanta. He dresses like and drives a similar car to his long-gone mentor Juan. No longer an outsider per se, Chiron is still not at peace, suffering still from lifelong loneliness. His mother calls him repeatedly, trying to reconnect after years of parental abuse and neglect. Out of the blue, he also receives a friendly call from Kevin, after a decade of separation. Thus, Chiron returns home to find closure for the two most significant and broken relationships he has. Chiron accepts his mother’s failures and apologies in a simple but heartfelt scene where she declares her love for him. His reunion with Kevin edges awkwardly but tenderly towards the truth of their long attraction, which is where the film ends.

There is a lot going for Moonlight stylistically, thanks to the care taken by director Barry Jenkins. There are many beautiful shots and creative camera movements. Repeated motifs include water (the ocean, the bathtub, and sinks full of ice), primary colours (especially blue), and Chiron’s POV shots done in slow motion (shots of adult Kevin smoking a cigarette echo the erotic shots of model Jon Kortajarena in A Single Man). The acting is also cohesive and very well done all around, especially by the young actors. Plus, the music selection is excellent.

However, the story and characters aren’t as deeply written as they could be, with some of the scenes and lines not explained clearly enough or dwelt on long enough to make an impact. Chiron does not have much of a personality or inner life and his biggest moments are defined by his relationship to other characters. Because of this empty protagonist, the plot and mood do not quite satisfy. Admittedly, I also had trouble understanding about 20% of the spoken street slang, so I may have missed a character point or two. Still, this wonderfully, unapologetically black, visually strong film clearly speaks to many other viewers around the world and across the gamut of identities.

Ratings (out of 5):

Directing: 4

Story: 4

Acting: 5

Dialogue: 3.5

Editing: 3.5

Visuals: 4

Music/Score: 4.5

Overall Average: 4.1

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