Carrying the weight of three Oscar wins, including the Best Picture upset, I went into Moonlight with stacked expectations. Surely the critical darling of 2016 with striking similarities to Boyhood (a film I feel less than highly about) wasn’t going to blow me away like everyone else. Not only were my expectations reached, they were broken by this poignant, powerhouse of a movie I legitimately regret not seeing sooner.
Moonlight (2016) is a coming-of-age drama written and directed by Barry Jenkins, and based on the life of Tarell Alvin McCraney. It stars Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes as Chiron, a black gay man during three stages of his life – from a young boy hiding in crack houses to a confused and abused teenager at school to finally a reserved drug-dealer still unsure of himself.
There’s a thin balancing act Moonlight treads under the direction of Jenkins. While the film is steeped in beautifully poetic and dreamlike imagery and moments, it never loses its footing as a grounded and incredibly intimate story. The arch of protagonist Chiron is the heart of the film and never vanishes even amongst the lavish cinematography, a tightrope walk that Jenkins achieves with the utmost precision and care. At its best, Moonlight creates scenes so special and intimate the camera feels as if its intruding on a genuinely private moment. And Moonlight is rarely not at its best.
The three act structure of Chiron’s story would fall apart if the casting director Yesi Ramirez had faltered, but thankfully all three lead actors are fantastic. Their performances work like a tripod – if one of the three legs failed the entire structure would collapse. Starting with Alex R. Hibbert in his wonderfully subdued acting debut to Ashton Sander’s heartbreaking experience at school to finally conclude with Trevante Rhodes blossoming into the man he desperately wants to be, the essence of Chiron as a person is never lost. My only minor gripe is that the third Chiron, Rhodes, looks like a wholly different person to Sanders and Hibbert. It doesn’t hinder the performance as Rhodes is still fantastic, but just makes it that little bit harder to transition from act two to act three.
As for the supporting cast, Mahershala Ali is the one who’s received the most acclaim and deservedly so. Clearly a talented actor, Ali may only grace the screen for around 20 minutes, but not only does his character Juan open the film, but also makes a strong impression on both Chiron and the audience. Naomie Harris deserves just as much praise as Chiron’s mother Paula. Drug-riddled, abusive and utterly heartbreaking, a lesser actress would have turned her into a completely despicable character, but Harris manages to provide glimpses of hope that there’s still a caring mother deep inside.
Its hard to go into a film with the high expectations of ‘Best Picture winner’ plus an entire year of critical praise still fresh in your mind. That’s what makes it even better when a film shatters those expectations and makes you regret waiting as long as you did to experience its majesty. Moonlight is that film, and while I can still comfortably call La La Land my favourite film of the year, the subject matter and sheer topical power of what Jenkins has achieved here makes me happy the Academy has noticed. Here’s to the fools that dream, but in the end “It is what it is”.
General Audiences: Highly Recommended
Film Buffs: Must-see
Cinema-sobbers: Highly Recommended