Moonlight (movie review)

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So often you hear about the importance of levity to the success of a movie, even the most serious ones. Well, you won’t find much of that in Moonlight, the incredibly powerful film written and directed by Barry Jenkins based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. And, in this case, that’s a good thing. When your movie follows a young, gay, black man living in the projects of Miami, it’s hard to find the humor in that.

No, of course it’s not who our protagonist Chiron is that’s sad, but his surroundings and what he must experience because of who he is. In the poorest neighborhoods, where drugs and guns are a way of life, machismo reigns supreme. The manliest man is top dog and if your testosterone isn’t at peak level, you’re pretty much destined for a hard life. This is reality for the small, frail, timid Chiron who dreads the day his peers discover he could be attracted to one of them. To find much levity in this situation would be dishonest and idealistic.

Chiron’s story is told in three sections. The first is titled “Little” after one of Chiron’s nicknames, the second is titled simply “Chiron” and the third is titled “Black”, another nickname. We see his life unfold as a public school student, high school student and young adult and watch him navigate rough neighborhoods, endure relentless teasing and struggle with his sexuality and overall identity. If that doesn’t seem tragic, Chiron also has a drug addict mother named Paula, played with a complete lack of vanity by Naomi Harris in a sensational performance that will definitely attract Oscar votes. Even though Paula is unstable and neglectful, Harris still manages to show the layers underneath her rough exterior to allow us to sympathize with this damaged soul despite her flaws.

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It’s a great decision to tell Chiron’s story over the course of several years. It supports the idea that his problems aren’t ones that can be solved overnight as most movies would suggest. One deep conversation or big speech typically isn’t enough. These are the kind of problems that plague a young man for years. Having three different time periods also helps to combat stereotypes and shows that people from these neighborhoods actually grow, mature and have fascinating, complicated lives

When we first meet Chiron, at first played by Alex Hibbert, he’s been chased into an abandoned building by bullies. The small, quiet, thoughtful boy is found by a drug dealer named Juan (a fantastic Mahershala Ali) who unexpectedly and refreshingly poses little threat, instead taking the boy into his home and introducing him to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) who takes a liking to him quickly. It is a delight to see a character like Juan as a positive role model despite the morally complex situation of him actually being responsible for Chiron’s mother’s addiction. Scenes where Juan teaches Chiron how to swim or discusses the idea of being gay are beautiful and tug at the heart strings without being heavy handed. Jenkins lets the situations speak for themselves, knowing that any extra sap would be redundant.

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Chiron’s story jumps ahead to high school where he’s now played by Ashton Sanders in the darkest and most controversial chapter of the story. This is where both the actions of his tormentors and his sexual evolution become more serious and graphic. This chapter is both tender and tragic and Chiron’s friend Kevin (previously played by Jaden Piner and now Jharrel Jerome) is involved with both. The incredibly tender scene of the two boys coming out to each other, and indeed acting on it, in followed by a tragic scene involving relentless bullies and their manipulation of Kevin. It’s these two powerful, yet heartbreaking experiences that will help form the man Chiron becomes.

And that man is almost unrecognizable in the final act. Now played by Trevante Rhodes, Chiron’s a drug dealer following his time in Juvie. He’s hardened, feared, and physically imposing, even though his social awkwardness still shines through, especially following a call from Kevin, now played by The Knick’s Andre Holland in a brilliantly nuanced performance, showing us a man excited about the future, but subconsciously guilty about the past. Everything culminates in a final, almost real time sequence completely devoid of action, but rich with honesty, vulnerability and feeling. These two actors entrance you and hold your unwavering attention. We’re sucked into their situation, realize the implications of their meeting and eagerly await the conclusion.

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Admittedly, the film, and Chiron himself, are slow to make an impression at the start, but Jenkins, with help from three talented actors, force us to care about this person who becomes more and more complex as time passes, with the structure of the film lending itself to the feeling that we’ve been on a journey with Chiron like we were with Mason in Boyhood.

Too often characters like the ones found in Moonlight are portrayed as castoffs, simple one-dimensional plot devices instead of fully functional, thinking, feeling human beings. This film gives us a glimpse into the lives of poor African Americans that feels poetic and graceful with Nicholas Britell’s soulful, gentle score adding to this feeling. Of course, the guns and drugs are there, but merely to set the scene, not to smother the otherwise extraordinary characters and story in darkness and despair. At first glance, the film seems familiar, but look closer and you’ll discover a completely original experience, containing not a single weak performance, in one of the best films of the year.

Rating: 4.5/5 Atoms

NR 4_5 Atoms - A-

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