Movie Review: “Moonlight” – Dazzling and Dreamlike

Written by Jeremiah Greville December 01, 2016

Trevante Rhodes - Moonlight (2016)

“YOU’VE GOT TO SEE MOONLIGHT BECAUSE (IT’S ABOUT) ___________!” If you’ve heard anything at all about Moonlight, it’s probably sounded a lot like that. This is the sort of film that’s important for very specific reasons, and will be suggested to people solely for those reasons. However, because of the fabulously opaque and slow-moving pace of this film, discussing those elements would do it a disservice. Let me be clear about this, in case you already know what I’m talking about: the structure of Moonlight works best the less you know. The joy and profound experience of this movie is in how the plot unfolds, not really telling you what the point of the story is until the very last scene. I’ll discuss this in more detail below, but if you happen to already know what fills in the blank–don’t worry, because there’s another easy answer: “YOU’VE GOT TO SEE MOONLIGHT BECAUSE IT’S ONE OF THE BEST FILMS OF THE YEAR!”

Moonlight is written and directed by Barry Jenkins, based off the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, who is also credited with the film’s story. It follows Chiron, a young man growing up in Liberty Square, Miami, and takes place over three periods of his life, following him as a child, then as a high school student, and finally as an adult. These periods are split into three distinct chapters and feature different actors playing the same characters as they age. Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes play Chiron throughout these periods respectively, and are joined by an amazing all-black cast including Janelle Monáe and Naomie Harris as competing mother figures in Chiron’s life, and Mahershala Ali as a drug dealer named Juan. There’s no weak role or inauthentic voice in the bunch. These are fully-realized characters in an place that feels inexplicably mythic and dreamlike, yet entirely grounded at the same time.

“What you doing in here, little man?”

Jenkins has given us a work of art that is every bit the indie arthouse film you’d expect based on the near-universal acclaim it’s already received. Everything from the camerawork to the colour scheme to the type of film stock used in each chapter is carefully considered to serve Chiron’s emotional journey. The camera swoops and circles around characters in long, unbroken takes, often blurring and obscuring, but never confusing what’s happening on screen. Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton frame a lot of the action outside of the lens, making each scene feel lived in, rather than composed. Each chapter of the movie has its own colour palette, and comes with visual queues at the outset. Just like the name of the play it was based on, blue is a colour that pops up early and often, from the first shot of Juan’s classic low-rider, to the final, gorgeous shot of the film. Nicholas Britell’s sparse score is haunting, barely more than whisper in intimate scenes, yet swelling in intensity during some of the more significant moments in Chiron’s life, like when he’s taught to swim for the first time. The rising violin screech, while raw and lovely, is a melancholy reminder that happiness is fleeting, and struggle is the norm.

Ashton Sanders - Moonlight (2016)

And yet, Moonlight isn’t a depressing film. While it has moments of shocking sadness and ugly humanity, it never revels in the detestable, instead choosing to spend its time on the build up and consequences of each character’s actions. Even Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother Paula, an emotionally abusive drug addict, is afforded brief moments of compassion and truth. Her performance is startling, her character is selfish, yet her capacity for redemption is never in question. Moonlight isn’t about judging characters, but exposing them. It’s shockingly intimate, without every being gaudy or obscene. This lack of judgment and easy answers is perhaps most obvious in Mahershala Ali’s Juan, a dealer who serves as a father figure for Chiron. Ali steals the show and easily deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but the question of whether or not he’s a good person is irrelevant to the question of whether or not he’s a good character. Part of the strength of this film is that it’s not a ‘message movie’ or a morality tale—it’s a character study, and that’s where it’s strength lies.

“You gonna raise my son?”

But on a narrative level, what makes this film work so well is what it chooses to leave out of each scene. Chiron is often a cipher, barely speaking more than a few words at a time, allowing the audience and other characters to project their own meaning onto his silence. What isn’t said in every scene is just as important as what is, and this is why I’ve chosen to leave some important plot points out of this review. In a few months, when this film is an award-season darling, it will be a moot point. But for now, in the interest of reviewing this film, I want you to have the best experience possible if you do choose to see it (GO SEE IT!!). Allowing plot elements, however obvious, to reveal themselves over the length of the film is the best way to enjoy it, and it’s the way the filmmakers have obviously structured the narrative. Even by the time you think you know what the movie is ‘about’, it offers another possibility, and never leaves you entirely certain. Again, this is not a morality play—this is a character piece, and these characters have layers you’ll want to discover.

Naomie Harris - Moonlight 2016

By the time Moonlight enters the cultural consciousness fully and becomes something most people can talk about around the water cooler, questions will arise about the originality of the film, and the tropes within. The story of a black youth growing up in a troubled part of town has been told many times, and will continue to be told as long as it remains relevant. In this case, however, the story isn’t about a universal experience, but a singular character, and takes inspiration from the lived experiences of Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney, who both grew up in the same area the film takes place. Because of that, this is an intensely personal and honest film. Combined with Laxton’s dreamlike cinematography, and the overall emphasis on character over message, this film transcends expectation and cliche. This is a timely and timeless film, a moving story, and a powerful experience.

“Who is you, Chiron?”

Go see Moonlight as soon as you can. It’s always nice to be ahead of the curve on the next big thing, and this is a movie that will be talked about extensively during award-season. Chiron’s journey to adulthood is a story that was begging to be told, and you owe it to yourself to experience it as soon as possible. The cast is devoted, the story is deeply personal, and the cinematography and direction combine to make each scene feel shockingly authentic. Whether you’ve already heard of this film or think you know what it’s about, I’m here to tell you that it’s worth your time. We need more movies like this one in theatres, but while it lasts don’t miss your chance to bask in Moonlight‘s beautiful glow.

My Rating: 9/10

Moonlight (2016) Theatrical Poster


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About Jeremiah Greville

Jeremiah Greville is a pretty rad beard that's attached itself to a human face. The beard likes movies, television, comic books, and gentle finger rubs. The human likes pizza and sleep. When they work together, they write reviews. Hope you enjoy them!

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