Road to the Oscars: "Moonlight" Review
Black Boys Look Blue
Moonlight is a drama directed by Barry Jenkins, and stars Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali. The film follows a boy named Chiron through different stages of his life, as the film depicts the struggle of Chiron growing up in a hostile, poverty-stricken neighbourhood of Liberty City in Miami. The film is an important character study of an individual who is fundamentally different from the people around him, these differences playing a major role in Chiron’s highs and lows. For the purposes of preserving the movie-watching experience for anyone who hasn’t seen this film, the element that makes Chiron ‘different’ will not be explicitly mentioned in this article.
If the names of the cast members sound unfamiliar to you, that’s because casual movie fans have likely not heard of the first three names, who all play Chiron at different points of his life. The creative poster design showcases this beautifully. Moonlight also marks director Barry Jenkins’ second ever full-length feature film, with a budget so low (5 million USD) that all cast members had to share one trailer for makeup, while the entire cast and crew shared one toilet stall. Nevertheless, the outstandingly low budget and relatively low presence of A-list names on the cast list didn’t stop Moonlight from snatching an amazing 8 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay, all major achievements in their own right. Indeed, Moonlight’s current momentum sees it being the only likely candidate that may steal the Best Picture award from under the nose of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, with even the most cynical critic being unable to deny that Moonlight will bring home at least one golden statue. With an already-strong representation of African-American talent in the films of 2016, does Moonlight stand on its own and above the shoulders of the rest?
If Moonlight could be proud of itself for one thing, it would be its boldness in telling a story that needed to be told. In this ever-changing world where poverty, prejudice, identity and acceptance are still major themes in global issues, here is a film that incorporates them all into Chiron’s story. Barry Jenkins has hit gold not only by directing an exceptional cast, but to do so while wearing the film’s emotions and messages with confidence. Is the film for everyone? Probably not, depending on which part of the world you come from. But if you want to watch a mature, meaningful film to learn and understand a side of America and a community that isn’t often captured in film, then Moonlight is the perfect one to put your faith in.
Life of Chiron
What seems like a relatively simple story takes a back seat to incredibly well-carved character development. All three actors who play Chiron bring their own individual strength and depth to the character, giving us the sense of growth as we transition from one period to the next. In particular, Ashton Sanders puts in the best and most profound performance as the teenage Chiron, who is arguably given the most to do and experiences the most turbulent times. In an environment where individuals who don’t fit the norm are shunned and even abused in many ways, the film gives viewers a peak into the perseverance of individuals who grow through obstacles. Obstacles that are as simple as being brought up in the wrong place at the wrong time. We see this through Chiron’s internal struggle in finding out who he is, while dealing with external challenges such as being neglected by his crack-addicted mother and being bullied by the other neighbourhood children.
All this makes Moonlight especially difficult to watch at times, and this isn’t helped by a strong yet tormented performance by Naomie Harris, who at one point is manic to the point of being scary. But not all things are as gloomy, as the aptly named film title indicates that there is indeed light in the darkness. This starts with the widely-praised Mahershala Ali, playing a man who stumbles upon a young, scared Chiron, taking him under his wing and acting as Chiron’s father figure. Ali gives an emphatic performance as a rock in Chiron’s life, bringing him some solace while hiding his own darkness. The performance resulted in Ali becoming the favourite to take the Supporting Actor award at the upcoming Oscars, capping a successful 2016 for the Californian-born talent. Also a source of sanctuary for Chiron is the bond he forms with childhood friend Kevin, who is also played by three different actors and is arguably the second-most important character in the film. In Kevin’s case, it is the teenage and adult versions (played respectively by Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland) that impress, with solid, believable performances that are almost as strong as the Chiron actors.
Moonlight is truly the painting that not everyone can appreciate, but everyone knows is art. And this is mostly due to Barry Jenkins’ incredible vision, creating a world which is tonally consistent through the best efforts of his cast as well as through the very creative use of sound and music. The varied use of old-school hits and classical music works surprisingly well in setting the tone of the film, giving one a strange sense of darkness but also positivity, and instilling a feeling of melancholy while twice moving forward so far in time. Such is the uniqueness of Moonlight, something that cannot be understood without sitting down and having a good, long think.
Who is You?
The drama in Moonlight is mostly deep and heavy, so don’t expect to have fun with the film. On a personal level, I would be lying if I said I enjoyed the film, but I cannot deny its quality. The only real thing I would consider a flaw in Moonlight is that there simply isn’t enough screen time for Mahershala Ali! Otherwise, Moonlight is the definition of an Oscar film, and that is meant in the most positive of ways. It is almost a crime that the actors playing Chiron and Kevin aren’t also recognised in any acting category by the Academy, a shame considering the entire film is almost entirely dependent on how authentic their acting is. Still, one cannot take away from the success of Ali as well as Naomie Harris for her Best Supporting Actress nomination.
Moonlight succeeds most in going where most films would never think of going. And it is only poetic that the third act of the film focuses on having the courage to take a leap of faith, saying what needed to be said. As fans of film and the powerful messages they can deliver, a film like Moonlight has been a long time coming. Whether it will beat La La Land to the biggest accolade of the night is a whole different story deserving its own article, but the producers will be crossing their fingers hard along with Jenkins that it does. What we can now be sure of is that the #OscarsSoWhite campaign has definitively been buried, and the door is now gaping open for the diverse talents of Hollywood to continue touch the hearts of millions.
Overall Rating: 7.5/10