Movie Review: Moonlight
R | 1h 51min
Director: Barry Jenkins
Stars: Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, Duan Sanderson
by Jason Koenigsberg
Moonlight is worthy of all the hype and critical praise it has received thus far. Much of that is because of it’s writer/director Barry Jenkins who managed to get his actors to convey a lot of emotion in their performances without speaking. By the end Moonlight is a beautiful and empathetic story about identity, the power of memories and so much more about the human condition.
The opening shot is an elaborate one. We see a blue car heading toward the camera, the driver is an African-American man, he gets out and walks across the street as the camera follows him. At this point we can tell he is in a low income, urban neighborhood. While the camera follows him it spins around two other black men talking about a drug deal, then some kids run by and it finally cuts to them. One of these kids, the one being chased, is the main focus of the story. He is a black boy named Chiron and the script follows him in three distinct acts, one in middle school where he is known as “Little”, high school where he goes by his birth name, and then as an adult in his late twenties where he is simply called “Black”. Moonlight works as an episodic coming of age film and joins the ranks of some of the other most important movies of 2016 about poverty in America.
The audience meets Chiron and sees that he lives with his single mother, played very convincingly by Naomie Harris, who we learn has an addiction problem and he receives very little love from her. He does not seem to fit in with the other kids in the neighborhood and gets picked on. Very early there are homosexual undertones with the way the camera holds at certain moments and subtle lines of dialogue. There is an early scene with Chiron alone in a bubble bath with suds dripping down the side of his face like tears. It illustrates his loneliness and is beautiful, subtle and heartbreaking all at once.
Our main character is constantly struggling with his sexuality and Moonlight emerges as a film about finding your identity, while also searching for a father figure and eventually accepting who you are. Chiron finds a father figure in the local drug dealer named Juan who has a good heart. Juan and his girlfriend take Chiron in and help him out whenever he needs some food, money or just a tranquil place to sleep for the night when his mother has company over or is too high to take care of him.
When the film jumps forward to his high school years Chiron is still lonely, confused, awkward and scared. He is also still the target of bullies. He has a fight at the school yard and that was the films weakest moment because its timing in the script made it feel too contrived. When we see him as an adult he is no longer like that, but instead looks and acts like Juan the drug dealer, who was really the only positive male role model he ever had.
Moonlight stands out as a special film because it has bold direction and brave performances. Director Barry Jenkins tackles subject matter most filmmakers would be afraid to touch. It is honest and beautifully shot even as it candidly depicts poverty. The final shot will stick with the viewer reminding us of the importance of our memories and how they impact who we become as adults. Small moments turn into scenes of subtle beauty. The cinematography has a blue tint or there are blue items in almost every shot tying the color palette into the title and themes of isolation and loneliness. Moonlight is an honest portrait of life seldom seen on film and is one of the best movies of the year.