I’m going to start this review of Moonlight by affirming something that you’ve either heard or, if you’ve seen the film, that you already know.
Moonlight is one of the best films of 2016. Many critics have declared it to be the best. When the Academy Award nominations are announced next month, Moonlight will receive several of them. Barry Jenkins will not only be the fourth black filmmaker to be nominated for best director but he may very well be the first to win. Personally, I would rate Arrival and Kubo and the Two Strings higher than Moonlight but I certainly won’t complain if Moonlight wins every Oscar that it’s nominated for. It’s a powerful and personal film, one that might make you cry and will definitely make you think. It sticks with you, from the brilliant opening to the powerful closing shot. In a weak year for films, Moonlight stands one of the few legitimately great releases of 2016.
Moonlight is a film in three parts, all dealing with the life of Chiron. Though he rarely speaks and often keeps his feelings hidden behind a wall of pain and deception, Chiron is one of the most fascinating characters that you’ll ever get to know. Growing up in Miami, he seems to be destined to be forever on the outside. In a country that protects whiteness and celebrates wealth, he’s black and he’s poor. In a social environment that values being hard and demands an almost cartoonish masculinity, Chiron is sensitive and gay.
When we first meet Chiron, he’s a child nicknamed Little and he’s played by Alex Hibbert. When we first see him, he’s fleeing both school bullies and a homelife that’s dominated by his abusive, crack-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris, giving a brave and raw performance that reminds you of just how wasted she was in the role of Moneypenny in SPECTRE). The only positive influence in Chiron’s life is a Cuban drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, who gives a performance of amazingly subtle power) and Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). Juan is the one who teaches Chiron how to swim. He’s the one who tells Chiron that he can be more than he realizes. Juan is the one who encourages Chiron to be himself, regardless of what the rest of the world demands that he be. And yet, Juan is also the one who sells the drugs that are destroying Chiron’s mom.
We also see Chiron as an awkward and withdrawn teenager and this time, he’s played by Ashton Sanders. Chiron struggles with his attraction to his best friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) and does his best to avoid a terrifying bully named Terrel (Patrick Decile).
And finally, we meet Chiron as a muscular and sometimes menacing adult and he’s now played by Trevante Rhodes. It’s when we meet the adult Chiron that we suddenly understand why the film was structured the way that it was. As intimidating and noncommunicative as adult Chiron may be, we know who he really is. We know that he’s still the same kid who we first saw hiding inside an abandoned apartment. When Chiron received an unexpected phone call from Kevin (now played, quite poignantly, by Andre Holland), he’s forced to confront who he truly is. It leads to … well, I don’t know how to tell you what it leads to without spoiling the film for you. I will say that the film ends with a haunting image, one that will stick with you long after the film ends.
Moonlight is a heartfelt and incredibly moving film, one that will challenge all of your preconceived notions and one that will stick with you long after you see it. Brilliantly directed and acted, Moonlight is a film full of beautiful, haunting, and often dream-like images. (Cinematographer James Laxton is almost as important to the film’s success as director/screenwriter Barry Jenkins.) And you definitely should see it if you haven’t.
It’s one of the best of 2016.