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MOONLIGHT (2016) review

December 27, 2016

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written by: Barry Jenkins screenplay) and Tarell Alvin McCraney (story)
produced by: Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner
directed by: Barry Jenkins
rated: R (for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout)
runtime: 110 min.
U.S. release date: October 21, 2016 and October 28, 2016 (limited) and November 4, 2016

 

There are several rare qualities that converge in “Moonlight” that make it one of the most moving and compelling movies of the year. It’s a film that offers a timely and timeless look at the at the experience of Black Lives in America, touching on the struggle of identity in the areas of masculinity and sexuality, as well as striking a chord in the areas of nurturing and emotional needs. The material here is handled with courage and bold style by writer/director Barry Jenkins, providing a distinct perspective of complex issues, while navigating a talented cast through delicate emotional beats. This is a personal feature, distinct with character and showing how Jenkins can deliver three difficult stages of an uncertain and fearful life. 

Jenkins labels his triptych artwork “Little”, “Black” and “Chiron” to distinctly separate the three stages in the life of an African-American male named Chiron. In each story, we learn more about this individual’s life, not so much who he is, but moreso what is happening to him and who are the people he can turn to, console in and who are the ones who’re holding him back or bringing him to a dark and lonely place.

In “Little”, we see Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as a young boy. Due to his meek personality and diminutive size, the kids in his Miami neighborhood call him “Little”, which leaves the boy predominately silent in his own protective shell. When we meet him at this stage in his life, he is running away from bullies and winds up hiding out in an abandoned house where he’s discovered by the local drug lord, Juan  (Mahershala Ali), who takes the boy in after discovering his troubled mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), isn’t a reliable parent. In fact, she’s addicted to drugs and is abusive. The only friend his age is Kevin (Jaden Piner), but it’s Juan who turns out to be the only male influence in the young boy’s life and he and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe) offer their home as a safe haven. Juan and Little form a bond, as the father figure teaches the boy how to swim and tries to instill in him a conviction to stand up for himself and consider setting out his own path in life.

 

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We catch up with Chiron (Ashton Sanders) during his teen years in “Chiron”, with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), still his only friend. We soon learn that the two trepidatiously develop an awareness of sexuality that bonds them. Chiron had been called “faggot” when he was a child without knowing what it meant, but now he’s become aware of his homosexuality, something that Kevin shares and helps him with. This burgeoning awakening only adds to his already hellish high school experience, where he is targeted by a school bully, Terrel (Patrick Decile), who subjects Black to mindless beatings and abuse. Eventually, the tender solace that he found with Kevin snaps under peer pressure, resulting in Black reaching his limit and getting arrested for finally retaliating.

 

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By the time we meet Chiron (Trevonte Rhodes) as an adult, he goes by “Black”, which is a nickname Kevin had given him in their teen years. He has toughened himself, changed his appearance by developed a muscular body and donning a golden grill, and now deals drugs near Atlanta. After spending time in juvie selling, he developed connections and a knack for the business, essentially falling into the same line of work as Juan, the only man who impacted his past. He even drives a similar car as Juan and lives in a large house by himself. Despite his physical changes, he has trouble sleeping and still has internal fears and insecurities to contend with. When he randomly gets a call one night from Kevin (André Holland), who still lives in Miami where he works as a cook at a restaurant, Black decides to take him up on an invite and travels down to Miami for a visit. His first stop is at rehab facility to visit his mother. Now sober, a repentant Paula asks her son for his forgiveness for the environment she raised him in and the abuse he received from her. The two have a tense and tearful exchange, resulting in Chiron forgiving his mother. He meets up with Kevin at the restaurant where he works and at first he is unrecognizable to his friend. The two go from awkward to vulnerable as they reconnect, as share what has become of their lives since high school.

The three chapters in “Moonlight” each explore a section of the feature, examining raw and pivotal movements in Chiron’s life, as he matures from a boy and collides into adulthood, unable to truly come into himself in a natural and instinctual manner. It is a truly fascination growth to watch and it’s impressive how Jenkins (adapting the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,  by Tarell Alvin McCraney) specifically designs the three acts. He captures the development and eventual suppression of Chiron’s spirit, with the story using sexuality as a tool of shame (something many viewers will relate to), while focusing on Chiron’s reaction to his eventual understanding of his feelings for Kevin. In “Moonlight”, Jenkins handles homosexuality with certain care, exploring the often combustible reception same-sex feelings have in black culture, which usually lead to uncertainty and unanswered questions about masculinity. That could be the reason Chiron has hidden himself in an exaggerated physique. The continuing struggle Chiron has with himself and those around him, often erupts in violence as a defense mechanism when hostility and judgement seems to come at him from every side.

 

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There is continuous heartbreak in “Moonlight” as we see the arc in Chiron’s life goes from a sensitive young boy diminish into a withdrawn and closed-off adult man. The bullying he experienced in life and his inability to rely on his mother has shrouded his personality and curiosity. As a thin-skinned teen who unintentionally stood out, he was an easy target for the cruelty of his peers. He never had the reassurance other kids his age had who could go home and find a place where he can receive love and support, since his mother’s behavior was unpredictable as she succumbed to the ravages of addiction before his eyes. If anyone has gone through being raised by an addict parent, they know that eventually, if real treatment is not sought, the child become the parent, until the parent seeks help or dies. When Chiron confronts his mother and reunites with Kevin, these are moments where we witness two internal walls crumble down. It’s still scary territory to offer forgiveness to his mother, someone who never really behaved like a mother and it’s there’s also a fear of exposure when Chiron is sitting in the restaurant with Kevin. Can he now accept what he has always wanted in his life after he had hid his true self for so long?

Jenkins is delivering a tender and extremely specific story here that revolves around a character’s identity struggle and awakening and he miraculously does so in ways that avoid manipulation or exploitative choices, tapping into stunning degrees of honesty in these three chapters. While there are elements in the first these two chapters that tread familiar territory in depictions of African-Americans on-screen, such as teen bullying and a junkie mother, how he goes about what he’s doing is what truly strikes a chord with viewers.  That final chapter offers the most amazing storytelling and acting in the film – the performances are marvelous all around, but the timing and patience on display by Rhodes and Holland is something special. To sum it up, “Moonlight” is something special, an edifying reminder of the propensity of film when it can become an opportunity for viewers to walk in someone else’s shoes and understand their pain and fears and, in turn, breakdown any stereotypes we may have about those around us.

There are numerous valid reasons why “Moonlight” is earning a ton of year-end praise, receiving Golden Globes nominations, and awards from certain film critics associations across the nation. Although it will assuredly earn some Oscar nominations, I’m apprehensive as to how the Academy will approach “Moonlight”, mainly because they usually like their to award ‘black movies’ that focus on slavery, so while this may get nominated for Best Picture, it will likely be tossed around come voting time as that “black gay story”. Still, the fact that more people are seeing “Moonlight” and word is spreading is a win in and of itself.

 

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RATING: ****

 

 

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