Film Review: "Moonlight"

Promotional poster for "Moonlight." (Photo from A24 production company.)

Promotional poster for "Moonlight." (Photo from A24 production company.)

Director Barry Jenkins’ second feature film, “Moonlight,” based on the stage play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” follows the main character Chiron as he struggles to define himself while dealing with the hardships of his life. The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September of this year, and since then has won a number of awards. The film is attracting a lot of buzz for the upcoming Oscars in 2017, and for good reason, too.

Set against the background of an impoverished and drug-ridden Miami neighborhood, “Moonlight” is told in three parts: “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black.” These chapters capture Chiron at different stages in his life. In “Little,” we see Chiron as an awkward and often teased young boy, played by Alex Hibbert. “Chiron” shows Chiron, played by Ashton Sanders, as a teenager dealing with his drug addicted mother, problems at school, and experimenting with his budding sexuality. The final chapter, “Black,” shows Chiron as a hardened young man, played by Trevante Rhodes,  living and selling drugs in Atlanta, as well as reconnecting with his high school crush.

The film opens with young Chiron being chased from his school to an abandoned building as boys throw rocks and yell homophobic slurs at him. He hides in the building until the boys leave and he’s eventually found by a caring drug dealer named, Juan (Mahersala Ali). Over time, the two begin a friendship as Juan and his girlfriend, Theresa (Janelle Monae), become Chiron’s temporary family when he doesn’t want to be around his drug addicted mother.

After a trip to the beach where Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, the two sit down and Juan tells Chiron, “At some point you need to decide for yourself who you gonna be.” From that point on, Jenkins invites the viewers to watch as Chiron attempts to figure out his own identity, sexuality, and what masculinity means to him.

In many ways, “Moonlight” is like any coming-of-age film. There are bullies, a first crush, sexual experiences, and the main character’s search for who they are. But the strength of “Moonlight” lies in the way the film shows and hits out at the unrealistic demands that society has set for men. And in Chiron’s case, the demands set for a young black boy in an impoverished neighborhood.  

All around Chiron are examples of the idea that men should be coarse and emotionless. He sees it in his bullies, the drug dealers in his neighborhood, and even in his crush and best friend, Kevin. It’s not the sort of person Chiron is, or even wants to be, but he knows that giving in to the pressure will be easier than living how he truly wants.

Due to the storytelling by Jenkins, as well as the performances by the incredible cast of actors and actresses, “Moonlight” is a very raw, and at some times, even haunting film. A lot of credit for that must go to cinematographer James Laxton (Camp X-Ray). His ability to capture the grit, bleakness, and beauty of Chiron’s world is one of the strongest parts of the film. The city of Miami transforms from a setting to a character throughout the film. We get to see its good and bad sides. Whether it’s the beauty of the beach, or the rundown area where Chiron lives, the city comes to life through the lens.

“Moonlight” also benefits from its use of natural sound and an incredibly moving soundtrack. Not only do we get to see Miami come to life, we get to hear it, too. We hear the sounds of the breeze caught in the palm trees, feet kicking up sand on the beach, cars speeding on highways, dogs, birds, and the crashing of the waves. it’s all captured and showcased in a stunning way. Several times during the film the actor’s voices are almost muted in favor of the natural sounds around them. It really helps to put the viewer in the moment; along with making the environment that they’re in much more real.

Composer, Nicholas Britell, whose music has featured in the films “The Big Short,” “12 Years a Slave,” and many others, does his part in adding to the overall tone of the film. His use of the piano and violin help to show young Chiron’s innocence and curiosity, teenage Chiron’s pain and heartache, and adult Chiron’s new outlook on life.

The film is one of the best to come out this year. And if there is one thing that “Moonlight” gets wrong, it’s that it ends. When the nominations for the Oscars are announced on Jan. 14 of next year, I fully expect to see “Moonlight” and its cast listed in several categories. It’s a moving and beautiful film that’s definitely worth seeing.