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Review: Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight (2016)

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

Premise: The story of Chiron, an African American male, told in three parts. As a boy, Chiron lives with his drug addicted mother. As a teenager, he is bullied by his high school classmates for his homosexuality. As an adult, Chiron revisits a friend from his youth.

What Works: The late film critic Roger Ebert liked to say that cinema was a machine for creating empathy. By that he meant that movies could show us the world from someone else’s point of view and allow us to begin to understand the experiences of people of a different background. Moonlight is a very good example of that. This film is the life story of Chiron, a gay African American male, and it gives the audience a look at the forces that shape his identity. Moonlight covers an impressive scope by dividing its story into three segments. In the opening portion of Moonlight—which is in many respects the most powerful—Chiron is a child who lives with a crack addicted mother. He is befriended by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a crack dealer who mentors the boy by day but sells drugs to his mother by night. The portrayal of Juan is complex; he is a drug dealer who willingly steps into a paternalistic role and the film subtly but knowingly plays upon the popular imagery of African American men. In this phase of the story Chiron is played by Alex Hibbert and the young actor is exceptionally restrained, conveying a lot through a glance or a gesture. Also impressive is Naomi Harris has Chiron’s drug addicted mother. Harris’ character is relatively one note but the mother-son relationship is key to Chiron’s identity and Harris makes an impression that ripples throughout the rest of the picture. The second phase of Moonlight catches up with Chiron as a teenager, now played by Ashton Sanders. In this phase of his life, Chiron is bullied by his classmates but he experiences a romantic moment with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). But the homophobic atmosphere keeps the young men repressed and culminates in an act of violence. The last phase of Moonlight takes place with Chiron as an adult played by Trevante Rhodes as he reunites with Kevin, played by André Holland. Echoing his upbringing, Chiron is now a dealer and Rhodes’ performance exudes the pain of the character’s childhood. Here again the movie plays up the popular imagery of African American men and explores Chiron’s identity in a way that is simultaneously tragic but also hopeful.

What Doesn’t: Moonlight is a slow and pensive film. This picture doesn’t adhere to the style of mainstream Hollywood moviemaking. In many respects it even goes beyond the styles of a lot of independent and arthouse cinema. It isn’t that Moonlight is especially avant-garde but the story is told is an understated way, similar to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy. Mainstream viewers are accustomed to filmmakers telling their stories in a direct style; even when the real meaning is embedded in the subtext, there is typically some conflict on the surface of the movie that gives viewers something to grasp and orient themselves through the story. Moonlight doesn’t do that. The film embeds its subject—the complex interaction of race and sexual orientation in the formation of identity—underneath the imagery and the dialogue. This is a more realistic style than we typically see in the movies. In life, people don’t talk about their feelings with the directness and clarity that they usually do in a feature film. But viewers are likely to feel adrift while watching Moonlight. That’s probably intentional on the part of the moviemakers. We struggle to understand Chiron in much the same way he struggles to understand himself. But as a result of that style, Moonlight is going to be a frustrating watch for viewers who expect their movies to be more straightforward.

Bottom Line: Moonlight is a pensive film and so it requires a certain amount of patience and effort from the audience. But for viewers who are willing to cooperate with this film, Moonlight is a terrifically nuanced portrait of identity with some extraordinary performances.

Episode: #624 (December 4, 2016)