By Will Mann
Ah, we finally make it the fall Oscar season, when a selection of great movies all vying for the little golden statue are released to the theaters. One of the films that has gotten the most buzz is director Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. A small, intimate drama focused on a young man’s coming of age, Moonlight has earned comparisons to director Richard Linklater’s 2014 film (and one of my favorite movies) Boyhood, but perhaps being more inclusive than that movie was because of Moonlight’s main character being a gay, African-American man.
The film follows Chiron, a young African-American boy in Miami that we see in three distinct segments of his life. The first, entitled “Little,” involves Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as a young boy. With a drug addict mother named Paula (Naomie Harris) and earning the scorn of bullies, Chiron hides in an abandoned building, where he is discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer. Juan takes Chiron in for the night, and introduces him to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). After Juan confronts Paula about her risky habits, Chiron asks Juan about his relationship to drugs and whether or not he sold them to his mother. The next segment, entitled “Chiron,” picks up with the now-teenaged Chiron (Ashton Sanders) dealing with an emerging sexuality. He is still the subject of ridicule in bullying in his high school. His childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is one of his confidants. As Chiron goes to a local beach where Juan first taught him how to swim, he runs into Kevin. The two smoke marijuana and reflect on where they are in their lives, but not before sharing a kiss and an intimate act on the beach. When the bullies at school pressure and force Kevin to beat up Chiron, he relents and does. Heartbroken, at school the day after, Chiron takes revenge on the bully that encouraged Kevin to beat him up, and is jailed for his behavior. In the last segment, entitled “Black,” the now fully-grown Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) is now a drug dealer in Atlanta. He gets a call one day from a grown-up Kevin (Andre Holland), apologizing for what happened between them in high school and asking Chiron to come visit him in Miami, where he now works as a cook in a restaurant. Realizing he still has feelings for Kevin, Chiron goes to Miami, but not before stopping by to see his mom, who is now in a rehab program. Chiron then meets Kevin working at the restaurant. The two gradually become more comfortable around one another as they reconcile. When they go to Kevin’s house for the night, Chiron confides in him that he had not been intimate with any other man since the night on the beach, and the film closes with Chiron and Kevin holding each other in bed.
Moonlight is a very effective and artful movie. While the mere premise of trying to depict a coming-of-age film about a protagonist who is both gay and African-American seems revolutionary, director Jenkins’ allows the film to resonate, to slow down, to depict with intimate detail the day-to-day struggles of Chiron’s life. The cinematography utilized in this film really helps to hone in on the film’s themes. Utilizing everything from long-takes to burst of colors, Jenkins knows how to convey through imagery the life that Chiron is living. The film also has a very interesting mix of non-diegetic sound design that might recall the work of David Lynch. Everything in this film feels very deliberate, and serves as a testament to Jenkins’ work and abilities as both a writer and a director.
I want to give particular attention to two of the performances: Mahershala Ali as Juan and Naomie Harris as Paula. While Mahershala Ali has distinguished himself recently in part because of prominent television work on Netflix with shows like House of Cards and Luke Cage, his Juan is one of the most compelling characters in the film. In his performance, Ali is able to bring a tenderness underneath the character’s tough exterior that immediately endears him to the audience. Honestly, one of my biggest complaints is that Juan suddenly disappears a third of the way through the movie, robbing us of more time with him and watching Ali’s charming performance. This feels like a breakout moment for Ali after years of respectable supporting roles in film and television, and it is one I hope other productions in Hollywood notice and take advantage of. I also want to praise Naomie Harris. While she’s typically seen in blockbusters like the Pirates of the Caribbean movies or the last two James Bond movies (as Miss Moneypenny), Harris is able to channel the conflicted life of a chronic drug addict in a meaningful, sensitive way. She can depict the almost-bipolar life of an addict, the really high highs (both literally and figuratively) and the soul-torturing lows, both with heartbreaking eloquence. I hope these two performances are remembered come Oscar time.
Moonlight is a truly terrific film, full of strong performances, interesting cinematography, and a timely and important depiction of the type of character that unfortunately does not seem to get their rightful due in modern popular culture. It is nuanced, sublime, and unlike any movie I’ve seen in a quite a while. It is the result of extraordinary efforts by its talented director/screenwriter and cast to tell a very authentic and modern story. In terms of movies out in theaters right now, Moonlight is one of, if not the best I’ve seen. It’s one of my favorite movies of the year thus far, and I hope it becomes a major player in the Academy Awards race a few weeks from now. Do yourself a favor and go this magnificent film, I highly, highly recommend it.