Moonlight (2016)

8 Nov

Moonlight-Little_Homepage_170327_175717

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Warning—some spoilers ahead!

Oscars viewers who were distraught by the snubbing of the game-changing coming-of-age film “Boyhood” for the Best Picture statue are now redeemed after another groundbreaking coming-of-age film took home the award (but just barely—look up the 2017 Oscars controversy if you don’t know about it already). That film is Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” a small indie film that portrays three important moments in time for a young gay black man, as he grows from child to teenager to adult. Critics and film-festival audiences adored it, as did more mainstream audiences when the film hit theaters, and it became the “little film that could (and did).”

And for good reason—it is a REALLY good film. I missed it before I wrote my “2016 Review” post for this blog, but it surely would’ve made my top-5-films-of-the-year.

“Moonlight” shows us three chapters in the life of our main character Chiron. It’s like a trilogy of 40-minute short films in a way, starting with the segment titled “Little,” in which we first meet him as a young boy (played by Alex Hibbert) nicknamed Little. He lives in a Miami ghetto with his single mother (Naomie Harris) but would rather not spend nights at home often, due to his mother being constantly strung out on drugs and knowing more about punishing her son than showing affection towards him. When local drug pusher Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds him hiding from bullies in an abandoned house, Chiron doesn’t want to go home and instead spends the night at Juan’s before he finally tells Juan where he lives. Juan becomes Chiron’s father-figure (and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) is like a surrogate-mother), as Chiron’s real father is nowhere to be found. He teaches him to swim, gives him crucial advice and tells him he’s going to grow up facing more troubles. But he also teaches him the importance of reacting such troubles.

Then we flash-forward to the next segment, titled “Chiron,” when Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is a high-school teen, still dealing with his angry, drugged-out mother and enduring rougher bullying than before. He also has a sexual awakening after a long period of figuring things out within himself. Juan is out of the picture (though Chiron still spends some nights at Teresa’s), but Chiron still has a friend in classmate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). But in the midst of his troubles comes peer pressure, which leads to a violent encounter that causes a rift between him and Kevin.

The final segment, “Black,” features Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) as a 20something-year-old man with a new nickname: Black. He’s left Miami and moved to Atlanta after spending some time in juvenile hall, and he’s now a drug dealer, much like his mentor Juan was. He’s still sensitive and thoughtful, but you couldn’t tell by looking at his now-muscular appearance. He returns to his hometown, where he reunites with his mother and Kevin. The reunion between Chiron and Kevin is more meaningful, as the two catch up, Kevin talks about how he turned his life around, Chiron admits his true feelings, and the ending is ambiguously hopeful (more positive than how the film began).

“Moonlight” is not merely an exploration of a man coming to terms with his sexuality. It’s a film that shows how important it is to love yourself before you can love others. It’s often said in other sources that if you don’t love yourself, the insecurities get the better of you, which leads to unpleasant confrontations with the people in your life. That would help explain the behavior of Chiron’s mother Paula—when I saw this film a second time, the scene in the “Chiron” segment in which she goes through mixed emotions while on crack, I couldn’t help but wonder what was on her mind, how she grew up, what brought her to this, and more. This is a person who doesn’t love herself and thus doesn’t treat her son with the love he deserves. And once I considered that, that made their reunion in “Black” all the more powerful. (That’s all I’ll say about that.) And so here you have Chiron, who is going through so many issues in life, doesn’t have many people to call his friends or family, is confused about himself, faces intolerance and poverty, and could easily go down the wrong path for the rest of his life (which is why it’s alarming when he commits a certain act in “Chiron”). With confidence and love, he can overcome these things and turn it all around, which is what we hope will be the case when he reunites with Kevin.

The subject of an African-American male growing up gay is rarely seen in films, and director Barry Jenkins knows just how to tackle it: by making the themes universal so that even audience members who aren’t gay or black or even male can find something big in this small film that they can completely relate with. (And this is an odd observation, but I couldn’t help but notice the lack of camera-shaking in the successful attempts to make the camerawork look/feel more “realistic.”)

But of course, it’s one thing to have a gripping script with a look/feel that seems genuine; it’s another if the right actors can pull off these roles. And boy, do they. The cast is across-the-board excellent, with all three main actors capturing all three sides of Chiron brilliantly. Naomie Harris is also brilliant showing the angry and bitter but also human and sad sides of a single mother with too many problems of her own to show love and affection to her son. And last but certainly not least, Mahershala Ali is outstanding as Juan. It’s not a big role, as he’s only present for the “Little” segment, but to say he makes the most of it would be an understatement. Now, I have a little story I want to share—I missed seeing this film in 2016 and only saw it after it won the Best Picture Oscar; Ali’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar clip convinced me I had to see it as soon as possible.

“Moonlight” is a film that is absorbing, rich, and more importantly, real. Much of it is bleak, but that’s what’s needed for the more uplifting, sobering aspects to take effect. The ending successfully shows that in life, there are no ways of going back (and no reason to either), the things you go through make you who you are, and where you go from here on out is ultimately up to you. That it all comes a film that is this well-acted and well-executed makes it all the more powerful and deserving of the Best Picture win.

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