‘Moonlight’ Transcends Darkness Of A Troubled Life (Movie Review)

moonlight thumbFor all the struggles we watch the main character face in Moonlight, the film presents a story that is incredibly compelling to watch. Thanks to several confident performances and a cinematic presentation that ably works to invite the viewer in, here is a film that uses a triptych storytelling device to great depict how one develops an identity. Various circumstances, locations and identifiers provide a setup. However, despite witnessing a truly personal story being told, it manages to feel incredibly rounded. It makes the setup practically beside the point, as Moonlight finds a way to say a lot with a little.


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As stated, the story is told in three parts, all focused on a black male, Chiron, in different periods of his life. The first portion focuses on Chiron when he is just a child (Alex Hibbert) fitted with the nickname “Little”, as he’s smaller than the other boys and teased for it. A middle chapter finds us watching the teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) deal with bullies and various pressures around him. The final portion of the film sees an adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) continuing to struggle with his own identity, assuming the guise of a drug-dealing thug instead.

During these stories, Chiron is supported by/dealing with a few other players including his childhood friend Kevin (played as an adult by Andre Holland), Chiron’s drug-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris), a Cuban drug dealer who is kind to Chiron, Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Juan’s benevolent wife Teresa (Janelle Monae). There is an importance to each of these characters for Chiron and they manage to take on varying forms for him, as we see the different time periods in his life unfold. As with everyone in life, time can change a person, but you can also see how some never change.

To speak of specifics, it is important to note Chiron lives in a less glamorous part of Miami, Florida. This troubled part of the area features drug activity and general cruelty when it comes to Chiron dealing with his dilemma of how to come out and stay true to who he is. With that in mind, Moonlight is far less concerned with making grand pronouncements of what it is to be a gay black man in modern society and more about how difficult it is for anyone to truly speak their mind, come out of their shell and not suppress what makes them who they are.

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Taking this approach helps to make Chiron a compelling character to watch (even while played by three different actors), as we see this person grow overtime and go through a level of anguish as far as finding the right way to truly express himself. With a quiet, non-threatening presence in the first two acts, it is not until the third act that the character is even comfortable speaking for prolonged periods of time. It allows the supporting cast to truly shine right next to the very introspective lead performances, but also places emphasis on just how complex it is for Chiron to even exist.

Fortunately the guarded nature of Chiron’s character doesn’t take away from the romanticism found in Barry Jenkins direction. Adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Jenkins puts forward a screenplay that captures an elegance requiring only so much information to set a scene, populated by a fine set of actors making wise choices. The amount of compassion found in some of these characters serves as a fine counter to those choosing to be more aggressive towards Chiron. It results in a story that is seemingly unremarkable from afar, but allows for much more consideration when looking back on what came through in a film not reliant on melodramatic developments.

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One must also consider the cinematic value that comes through, thanks to Jenkins and his cinematographer James Laxton. Sometimes I struggle at seeing adaptations of plays on film due to a level of staginess that distracts from the appropriated medium. One can look at great actors and find something missing when it comes time for them to deliver a monologue or move around very specific locations to play out a scenario. Moonlight is minimal in its presentation, but there is a great level of fluidity to how the camera functions in capturing what we need to see. There is a strong sense of composition that differentiates each period of time we are watching and true value in watching a sense of ease accompany Chiron’s low-key actions.

With a deliberate pace and a tone that suggests something intensely dramatic, saying Moonlight is a joy could come off as a non-starter, but there is true value to a film like this. It pushes aside misnomers of being about a character who is a certain way and asks the viewer to understand just how lonely many humans can be. Make no mistake, despite adolescent pressures, there is no side of this film that wants Chrion to be different, as there is nothing wrong with who he is and the film finds itself at its most relaxed when Chiron is allowed to emotionally reveal himself. Still, what Moonlight achieves with great aplomb is to allow for a great set of performances to engage its audience in a well told story that feels all to true to a universal degree.

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