Of all the films I’ve seen this year, Moonlight is hands down the best. It is a stunning piece of art that deserves all of the praise and awards coming its way. Without hyperbole, Moonlight is a phenomenal film that deserves everyone’s attention.
I went into this film cold, only knowing that it was a story about a kid growing up in Miami who is gay and that the film takes place over multiple points in his life. I had never seen a trailer for the film and I honestly thought that Mahershala Ali (who gives a commanding and nuanced performance) played the older version of the lead character, only proven to be completely wrong in the film’s opening scene. Having now seen the trailers, I’m happy I went in cold (the trailers are, btw, great and don’t spoil the overall story). The film’s surprises and character beats felt natural and honest and surprising in the theater, and if I had seen the trailers beforehand, I would have not been spoiled, but would have understood where the story may lead. Moonlight is such an intimate portrayal of one’s struggle with identity and true self that it was extremely satisfying watching this film with little knowledge and no preconceived notions of where the story and characters were going to take me. I need to do this more often, because not watching trailers and seeing a brilliant film is so, so rewarding.
That intimacy is the film’s greatest strength. As incredible as the performances are, as stunning a soundtrack the film has, as achingly beautiful the cinematography is, the portrait of this young man, Chiron, growing up in Miami, struggling with who he is and his masculinity and sexuality, is the most fascinating. As it should be, since it is the driving force and main theme of the film. What it means to be true to oneself and how one accepts and embraces that truth is Chiron’s struggle throughout the three acts. This film could so easily devolve into melodrama and lose its nuance and subtlety with its main theme, but it doesn’t. The director, Barry Jenkins, has such control over the characters and tempo and tone that the film never feels false. It remains solely focused on Chiron and the characters who, both positively and negatively, affect his life and his search for identity.
Some people are comparing this film to Precious or Boyhood, and while there are similarities, Moonlight is the stronger film. Both Precious and Boyhood are solid, but Moonlight captures such an essence of humanity that is hard to describe, but is incredibly palpable. Boyhood was at times melodramatic and forced certain scenes to give conflict. Precious felt self-indulgent and seemed at times proud of the misery and the sorrow it displayed. Yes Moonlight shows the negative effects of growing up in the projects, the horror of drug addiction, the lose of innocence, bullying, abuse, loneliness, and sadness. But it smartly never revels in that pain. It presents it as fact, as a way to develop the characters, as a way to add motivation. Every scene, every moment builds upon the last. It is never melodramatic and it is never self-indulgent. Each act of the tryptich, the first of Chiron as a child, the second of Chiron in high schoool, and the unbelievably amazing final act of Chiron as an adult, presents the same character and his fears, his sadness, his confusion, his identity in the same light: with intimacy and empathy.
This film generates such empathy from the audience for its characters (minor spoilers for the rest of this paragraph). Mahershala Ali is Juan, a drug dealer who befriends the young Chiron. He is a drug dealer with a heart of gold, but he never feels evil nor is he a saint. He is complex and encapsulates great qualities of being a man, while also being one who is eternally flawed in his actions and ways of life. Naomi Harris is Chiron’s mother, who loves and cares for her son and wants to see him safe, but has her own demons and addictions that harm and scar Chiron. Chiron’s childhood friend Kevin, whom we see throughout the film, cares for his friend, but also has to abide by the schoolyard rules and can’t fight Chiron’s bullies out self-preservation. Chiron is sweet and timid and shy, a good boy trying to live unnoticed, but is constantly swept up into this world of pain. But that world of pain is just part of his life, and does not ultimately define him. Each of these characters and the other many supporting characters are all complex humans with real emotions and real personalities.
Moonlight is a special film that is beautifully realized by its writing and direction with astounding performances by everyone in the cast. I cannot think of one scene that fell flat or felt weak. I was floored several times by what I witnessed in this film. Two scenes will forever stay with me. One involves the young Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) asking Juan (Mahershala Ali) about what Juan does and asks him to define a particularly awful word. The second involves the adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) in a kitchen having a conversation with someone special. Both of those scenes fully capture the beauty and the sorrow and the joy in this film. I was in awe of the film and the performances and the writing in these two scenes. They were the standouts in a film that already stands out from so many other films. This movie has sad moments, but it is ultimately a hopeful film, one that made me feel love and compassion for its characters. Moonlight is a truly moving film that demands to be seen.