The awards season always brings out the most interesting movies. This time of year is a great chance for actors and directors to stretch their creative muscles and make movies that people will notice. Sometimes this leads to your more obvious “Oscar-bait” kind of movies, but more often than not you get to see some real gems. Moonlight is definitely one of those.
I’ll freely admit this was an incredibly difficult movie to review. Firstly, because I’m pretty much the opposite of the target market. This is not a story I could easily relate to, as my life is so far removed from the lives of the people on-screen. Secondly, because I went into the screening of Moonlight knowing absolutely nothing about it.
And I’m glad I did. It’s such a unique story that I think any preconceived notions I may have brought with me would have changed my experience profoundly. Obviously I don’t want to give anything away, but if you’re reading this then you obviously want to know more.
So what is Moonlight? You can say that it’s a story of a boy growing up poor, black and gay. It’s a story of drug abuse, prison systems, violence and neglect, of the wrongs we do to each other that can’t be undone. But it’s more than that. It’s a story of beauty, courage, mentors and small moments that mould who we are. In essence, it’s a coming-of-age story, about the type of people we rarely see represented on screen as anything more than stereotypes.
Spanning the life of lead character Chiron, Moonlight is a collection of defining moments, interactions and memories that helped shape him from young boy to grown man. Chiron’s story is told in three chapters, starting with a small, taciturn kid nicknamed Little (Alex Hibbert) then progressing to the brooding adolescent Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and lastly the outwardly-strong adult who adopted the moniker of Black (Trevante Rhodes).
Chiron’s most defining influence is comes in the form of Juan (Mahershala Ali), the thuggish drug-dealer who finds Little hiding from bullies in an abandoned apartment. Ali’s performance is grace personified, which sounds at odds with the gangster persona he projects, but you can definitely see why Moonlight has garnered him an Oscar nomination. As an ocean of calm in a turbulent life, Juan is the person that starts Chiron on his journey of self-discovery.
Another well-deserved Oscar nod goes to Barry Jenkins, only the fourth black director to be nominated for Best Director. Jenkins is very efficient with setting the mood, often using softly focused, dream-like camera movements combined with sensual lighting and a perfectly fitting sound-track.
The harsh realities of Chiron’s upbringing strike a chord and while not everyone will relate to him, they will relate to the moments he experiences – the playground bully, the first love, the reliance on inner strength. The subject matters that Jenkins touches on, like borderline poverty, spiralling drug addiction and toxic masculinity, are all handled with empathy and respect, even though at times they’re not easy to watch.
Jenkins has crafted an incredibly human story, which never claims to be anything else. People are flawed, and do terrible things, and Moonlight doesn’t shy away from showing you that. But, people also have grace, and dignity and a perfect vulnerability. All of the good and bad melts together into extraordinarily complex characters who are beautifully ordinary.