Moonlight movie review: The story of a lifetime. A worthy challenger to La La Land
Director - Barry Jenkins
Cast - Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Andre Holland
Rating - 4/5
There are scenes in Moonlight – fleeting memories, ephemeral moments of truth – that will make you physically uncomfortable. An artist, several artists, have bared their souls for everyone to see, naked, brave, striking from even from thousands of miles away, as opera plays in the background and the fumes of a crack pipe cloud the screen.
“In moonlight, black boys look blue,” says Juan. He did not come up with this poetry – an old lady once said it to him – but to Chiron, the meek, bullied young boy to whom Juan offers a home, and brief distraction from the life he is running away from, he might as well have. The words Juan says to Chiron in the opening chapter of this film will stay with him for a lifetime, however long that may be. The moments Chiron spends with him, furious, silent, will define the kind of man he will become.
Chiron’s mother is an addict, and in a scene that will probably win Mahershala Ali an Academy Award, Juan is revealed to be the drug dealer from whom she buys her medicine. It is one of the many moments of cruel irony in a film full of them. The Miami of the film is a tragic place, where an unending cycle of vice and loneliness consumes the characters that drift in and out of it.
Most of them are hidden behind the skins that they have pasted on, carefully sculpted to hide who they really are. They are archetypes – drug dealers, crack addicts, thugs – but we see them unmasked, unguarded, in their homes, alone, away from strangers, when no one but their most trusted allies is looking.
Life had been scraping along before Chiron was born, and it will likely keep trudging towards an overdose once he is gone.
It is a lived-in world, where DP James Laxton’s camera, like the characters, twitches when it is uneasy for a fix, and glides when it is high. And like the characters, the images that it captures are immaculate on the surface, but beneath it, there is anger, hopelessness and defeat. Each chapter of the film (there are three) looks distinct, yet part of the same life, Chiron’s life.
In the film, he is played by three actors. Alex Hibbert plays the boy Juan finds hiding in a crack den, and takes under his wing. As a teen, he is played by Ashton Sanders, abused, confused and reclusive. And by the time Trevante Rhodes enters, Chiron is almost unrecognizable, grill in his mouth, gun wedged in the elastic strap of his baggy jeans, the same rocks that destroyed his youth, stuffed in his pocket, waiting to consume another young boy.
The cycle continues.
Together, they have created a coming of age tale, a portrait of troubled youth almost as powerful as Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, Linklater’s Boyhood and the Harry Potter saga. Almost, but not quite.
It is how director Barry Jenkins treats these lowlifes, the compassion that he feels for them, as if they were his best friends, that makes the film as quietly powerful as it is. And in the case of Chiron’s mother, played, in the film’s most startling performance, by Naomie Harris, it is hardly a stretch. She is said to have been based, at least in part, on Jenkins’ own mother.
And despite it all, despite the ruthlessness of the glowing streets, the musicality of the dialogue, the half-remembered dream that is this film is made even better by the performances of its cast. I could be wrong, but I can’t think of a single actor who doesn’t deserve – at the very least – an Academy Award nomination for their work.
Having seen the film just once, there is one thing I am sure of: One viewing is simply not enough to do it justice. To fully grasp its intricacies, to fully understand its silences, it needs to be seen again, and again, and again. It is tone poem, as surreal and hazy and magical and confusing and terrible and wonderful as every childhood. Even though it is as far removed from yours as is possible.