Movie Review – Moonlight

Directed by Barry Jenkins

Starring Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes

– Spoiler Alert –

In the haunting, dreamlike Moonlight, one most remembers the faces, the sad and hungry eyes that avert their gaze as if ashamed to reveal their longing. Those faces and those eyes belong mostly to Little, Chiron, and Black, the three versions of the singular character whose story comprises the separate chapters of Barry Jenkin’s deeply affecting, Oscar-winning film.

Little (Alex R. Hibbert) is a young black boy raised by an abusive, crack addicted mother (Naomi Harris) in a trap house infested Miami neighborhood. Chased by bullying peers, he hides in a boarded-up apartment where he’s discovered by Juan, a Cuban drug dealer (Mahershala Ali). Concerned about the speechless boy, Juan takes him home to girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monae) and the two allow him to spend the night. Juan soon becomes Little’s surrogate father, teaching him to swim and encouraging him to stand up for himself.

Already, Little has become the target of gay slurs though he doesn’t understand their meaning. By the time he becomes a teenager in the film’s second chapter, and now called by his proper name, Chiron (Ashton Sanders), he has become the target of constant and brutal homophobic bullying that has left him shy and withdrawn. Questioning his sexuality, he discovers his attraction to childhood friend Kevin (Jharrell Jerome) with whom he explores those feelings.

Chiron’s sexual yearning and lack of a clear identity continue in the film’s final chapter, where the young man, now called Black (Trevante Rhodes) continues to deal with the scars of his childhood.

Though the story of Moonlight touches on poverty, drug addiction, homophobia, and other social ills, it is by no means a primer on the injustices of class, race, and sexual prejudice. Its real themes are much more personal. Moonlight is a character study of one man’s journey toward self-discovery, of unfulfilled possibilities, regret, and personal redemption. The screenplay, by Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, based on McCraney’s unproduced play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is spare and simple, but never simplistic. It zeros in on its themes with precision and clarity, yet never seems preachy or belabored.

Jenkins tells this story with remarkable restraint, particularly for such a young director, (Moonlight is only his second film.) Avoiding the tawdry sensationalism into which he so easily could have degenerated, Jenkin’s hand is deliberate and understated. That restraint is particularly effective in the third act.

The tragic nature of Moonlight’s first two sections leads to expectations of some dramatic epiphany, some overwrought Hollywood eruption of emotion in the third, but Jenkins and McCraney are too smart for that, expertly building a nearly maddening sexual tension between the adult versions of Kevin and Black. It would have been so easy to give their viewers what they want and expect. But Moonlight refuses to pander to its audience. Black ultimately isn’t seeking sex, but love, acceptance, and a sense of his own identity. In the film’s brief penultimate shot, he seems to be on the path to finding it. It’s a sweet and low key ending that stays true to the films gentle tone.

Produced on a shoestring budget of 1.5 million, Moonlight is as visually rich as any film you will see this year. Expertly shot by cinematographer James Laxton, much of the film employs muted colors that refuse to glorify the squalor of the ghetto it portrays.  Other shots, photographed in sharp blue and purplish hues, reflect the intensity of Chiron’s inner turmoil. Jenkins and Laxton don’t need money to make his film look great, but a focused vision and a gifted crew.

Now back to those eyes. The film has been cast with a flawless ensemble of largely unknown actors, whose greatest strength is in their faces. Acting is not about performing but inhabiting. When a great actor becomes his or her character everything we need to know is revealed in their face and especially in their eyes. Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes, though having a limited physical resemblance, each capture the main character’s silent longing often without uttering a word.

The rest of the cast is equally effective. There are no “stars” here. The entire ensemble operates as a unified, organic whole. If there is a standout, it’s Mahershala Ali, as Juan. He’s heartbreaking in the movie’s most devastating scene as Juan must tearfully confess his imperfections to the child he has so carefully and knowingly nurtured. It’s not hard to understand why the Academy felt the need to single him out.

Moonlight isn’t perfect as some reviews would have you believe. There are two amateurish visual clichés both of which are parodied in the hilarious Seth Meyers trailer for the fake movie, Oscar Bait. These include a pointlessly showy shot of the camera circling two of its actors when a stationary camera would have been more effective, and a silly shot of Chiron’s fist clenching in the sand during orgasm. (Has anyone in real life ever actually done that?) There are some jarring hand held shots in the first act whose purpose is to convey Little’s sense of confusion and fear, that are merely distracting. But these are minor quibbles for movie that so beautifully and majestically captures the truth of its characters. If Moonlight isn’t quite a masterpiece, it is, at the very least, profoundly satisfying in a way that movies rarely are anymore.

By now, everyone knows about the fiasco surrounding this year’s Academy Awards and the unfortunate mistake that robbed this film of some of its well-deserved moments of glory. That Moonlight is the first “all black” film and the first LGBTQ film to win the Best Picture Oscar should come as no surprise to those who follow the usually safe choices made by the Academy. It’s a shame that Jenkin’s and McCraney’s attempt at highlighting the significance of that win during their acceptance speech, was strangled by the confusion of the moment.

While Moonlight lacks the star power and subject matter of more popular films (It’s the second least grossing film ever to win the Best Picture award.), it has both the content and the cinematic virtues to satisfy those viewers who appreciate a quieter, well crafted, character-rich drama, and a superb cast with glorious faces and those glowing, moon-like eyes. Now in wider release to cash in on its Oscar win, Moonlight is in full view for all to see. Catch its radiant glow while you can.

Score: 95/100