Sunday, 12 February 2017

Film Review: Moonlight

I was drawn into seeing Moonlight after all its award buzz but admittedly, did go into the screening thinking the story of a gay black boy growing up in a rough neighbourhood in the States, was one I've seen before. And arguably, there are slight moments the film panders to stereotypes. But what director Barry Jenkins does in Moonlight is both intelligent and visceral, layered, fresh, and unlike anything I've seen in cinema.

Whatever the trailer or critics may have you believe, this isn't really a story about about a gay black boy. Moonlight asks, who and what shapes us? How do we become who we are?


Moonlight is about Chiron, a boy born into a rough area in Miami. His dad is nowhere to be found and his mum, played by Naomie Harris, is a cocaine addict. Our first introduction, is when he's found by Mahershala Ali's Juan - who calls himself Blue, hiding from school bullies in a derelict building. Blue takes him back to his home where his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) offers him dinner and a place to stay after Chiron refuses to go home.

Moonlight Chiron 3 Actors
The film follows him growing up, marking each life stage by the different names he calls himself. First Little - a boy; his teenage years as Chiron - arguably a more removed version of himself and finally; a young man, Black who is a mirror of Blue but evidently more hardened by his environment and less sure of who he is. As he grows up, he's also discovering his sexuality in a harsh world that doesn't want to accept him. Teresa and Blue's home it seems, is a constant place of refuge.

We could say this is a coming of age story about a possibly gay boy growing up in a harsh African American community. But the film doesn't try to chronicle, judge or neatly box any of these experiences. It's beautifully open-ended, like life itself and is also layered with universal messages, perhaps notably on hyper-masculinity. Its power to create a hostile culture and society where men are not free to express themselves. And how it can create desensitise a person. One of the film's most raw and tender moments is when Chiron asks his friend Kevin, "do you cry?" which is followed by an open conversation in which considering up until this point Chiron has said very little, he's surprisingly articulate about his emotions.

As this is very much Chiron's story, the film is gentle, quiet and understated. Indeed given the characters they were playing, both Naomie Harris and Marhershala Ali could've easily given very bold, venturing on caricatured performances. Instead, both are stripped back - controlled and restrained, which only add to humanity we see presented in this film. Moonlight in fact does rely heavily on the actors' performances, with the camera almost always hovering over their shoulders. Something must also be said for James Laxton's cinematography which to put it simply, is stunning. The predominately handheld and frenetic camera work only adds to the stripped back emotions, that carry this story.

Harris had previously said she didn't want to take roles that would add to the narrative of people of colour being addicts, criminals, etc. But what Jenkins does here, is present a plethora of flawed individuals, and humanises them and their experiences, simply by giving them the space to tell their story. Juan's impact on Chiron's life is his impact is perhaps the most undeniable - whether that's a good or bad thing, I think the film is undecided. But in showing the long lasting impact they each have on each others' lives, we see glimpses of hope, kindness and grace.


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