MOONLIGHT 5 stars (out of five)
Moonlight is a film full of mesmerizing mystery. As it slowly searches through a young man’s conflicted heart, it creates a moment-to-moment feeling of discovery. It leaves you with a sense of pure wonder.
The film is a sprawling yet intimate urban epic. Based on an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, it follows a young African American man named Chiron as he grapples with homosexuality and growing up on the drug-drenched streets of Miami. We see Chiron as a painfully quiet boy (Alex Hibbert), a troubled teenager (Ashton Sanders) and a hardened drug dealer (Trevante Rhodes).
Writer-director Barry Jenkins maintains a masterful slow-burn pace as he digs under the bloodstained surface of Chiron’s world to reveal the desperation and aching beauty beneath. James Laxton’s cinematography captures the majesty amid the crumbling setting. And Nicholas Britell’s score looms over the film like the ghosts of Chiron’s past. Like the otherworldly glow to which the title refers, it’s eerily beautiful.
When we finally see Chiron as an adult, his former self is buried under brawn and bravado. It’s a tragic portrait of toxic masculinity being used as a defense mechanism.
We live in a world that’s largely more open to homosexuality. Yet here is Chiron, hiding behind intimidating muscles and sharp gold teeth. He powerfully embodies the timeless challenge of opening up one’s identity to the world. Rhodes perfectly captures the crippling weight of Chiron’s past. He makes his pain our own as he talks to his estranged mother (Naomie Harris) and reconnects with his high school friend (André Holland) — the first person to ever make him feel comfortable with his sexual identity.
One must stop and briefly speak of Naomie Harris’ nuanced, Oscar-nominated performance as Paula, Chiron’s desperately selfish drug addicted mother. Harris plays the part with a manipulative edge that makes us see her both as a bad parent and a woman in desperate need of help. While we can see that Chiron has deserved a better mother, somehow Harris forces us to also see her character as a woman who is a product of her environment and I wanted to see her prevail as she is portrayed as a broken woman with potential.
The other very noteworthy performance comes from Mahershala Ali who plays Juan, a drug dealer who takes Chiron under his wing after meeting the young boy through dealings with Paula in the film’s first act. I suspect that in Chiron, Juan can see how badly he needs a positive role model. Though Juan deals drugs he is not a villain by any means, and perhaps he can see a glimpse of himself in Chiron pondering if he’d had a decent person to show him the way if his life could have been better. Ali’s performance is one of splendour and it earned him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Moonlight radiates with you-are-there immediacy, putting us in Chiron’s skin as he struggles to break out of his shell. It’s an intensely relevant film — a shattering reflection of today’s world. It’s harrowing yet hopeful, making us wince and marvel at the spectacle of raw humanity.
One of the film’s most poignant moments comes when a young Chiron asks Juan “What’s a faggot?” Juan responds by saying “A faggot is a word used to make gay people feel bad.”
Chiron continues: “Am I a faggot?” To which Juan eloquently retorts: “NO. You can be gay…but you don’t have to let NOBODY call you faggot!”
In 2017, we have a president who’s endorsed by the KKK, but we also have films like Moonlight — films that aim to make us look past privilege and the haze of hate and intolerance surrounding society. At its best, cinema can take ideology off the table and replace it with a slice of raw reality. As the late great Roger Ebert wrote, a great movie “shakes us and gives us the impression of having touched life itself.” And like life, “the movies are a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
Moonlight is a cinematic journey you won’t forget.