Barry Jenkins adapts the stage play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and brings us the Best Picture nominated coming-of-age story of Chiron; Lawrence and Lee review.
I find it difficult to put into words exactly what it is that I like about Moonlight, other than it sets out to tell a specific story and it tells that story very well. The film follows Chiron: an African-American kid living in Miami. Chiron is fatherless, physically weak, bullied at school, his mother is an addict, he may be suffering from some form of disorder, and as it turns out, he’s gay in an environment that has some very specific ideas about what it means to be a man. The kid collects disadvantages like stamps, but it never feels cheap or contrived; every obstacle feels like a natural product of Chiron’s circumstances, however unfortunate they may be. People like him do exist after all.
Moonlight is adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. And true to its theatrical roots, the film has three acts, each following Chiron at different stage of his life: child, teen, and adult; he is portrayed by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes respectively. All three knock it out of the park; albeit in subtly different ways. I understand that they were kept separate from each other to ensure they could form their own interpretations of the character; yet there’s still a cohesion here, a consistency across all three. Mahershala Ali makes an impressive impact for the short time he’s on-screen as Juan, the (surprisingly progressive) drug dealer that takes Chiron under his wing; and Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother Paula seems to know her character better than Paula knows herself.
Chiron himself is terse, real terse; this combined with a lot of solo scenes means there is a large burden placed on the non-verbal storytelling to compensate. Director (and writer) Barry Jenkins carries that weight. Some earlier scenes are film with this strange blurry haze during moments of stress, and the low-key broiling score (composed by Nicholas Britell) speaks a level of underlying emotional trauma that slowly bubbles away until it eventually boils over.
While Chiron’s sexuality is a central theme, it’s more of a “Coming-of-age” story than a “Coming out” story. Most of the characters that know about it seem to learn of it off-screen, or are simply guessing. Chiron only directly bares himself to one person and it actually goes pretty well in the long-run, albeit with some considerable complications along the way. It’s pretty refreshing for a “Queer drama” to end on such an optimistic note, rather than a Brokeback bitter-sweetness, or a Boys Don’t Cry tragedy.
Moonlight is a strong all-rounder. Acting, direction, score, writing. It’s all of a high-quality and with enough personal style to give it that nice sheen that elevates it above the others; good show. Brush up on your urban dialect though; this movie is thick with the voice of the streets! Your middle-to-upper class grandparents may struggle; I recommend a crash course of The Wire or Luke Cage.
[Lawrence’s review originally posted 22/02/2017]
The challenge with conformity is knowing how much is too much, and how little is too little. If we feel we represent a certain set of values, and our perceived identity is both informed and defined by those values, along with the innate traits that make us who we are, then when society and family and work challenge those values and ask us to give them up in favour of abiding by their rules, how much do we have to give before we stop resembling who we perceive as ourselves?
That’s the main underlying question at the heart of Moonlight, and as is with most pondering questions on our place in this world with other people, there is no straightforward answer. Mercifully, Moonlight is the kind of movie that doesn’t dare attempt to bring solutions to the table; it just details the experiences of one person and their identity crisis and lets the audience decide for themselves what they might have changed and what they might have kept if they had been in their place.
As Chiron, our protagonist, grows from boy to teen to young man, we witness much of the formative moments he endures as he tries to discover where his place is and whether what he believes in is worth upholding. His life is riddled with drugs, and he struggles not to be defined by them; his role models aren’t exactly great role models, his only friend is also just another boy trying to find his place, his school and his community can’t help him and, though it’s never said out loud, society is already stacked against him for being black. But these aren’t factors he can control or change, or even direct targets for the movie to try and tackle; they just are what they are, and this is how one boy-cum-man attempts to survive under the weight of it.
It’s a patient movie, with a protagonist who has their own language of silent expressionism supported by a cinematic language of close cinematography, furious sound design, a sympathetic soundtrack, delicate editing and a soft light on every frame. The fabric of the narrative leaves much open for interpretation and further dissection, but never feels so open that it forgets at any point to continue building it laser-focussed character story.
When the camera occasionally leaves Chiron, it’s to reflect on the souls who also struggle with their identity, and when you notice that this happens to be every other speaking character in the story, you realise the epidemic scale identity crisis has reached. The frustration you can feel at Chiron for not attempting to mend his problems, when the solutions we are privy to are so clear and numerous, so clearly emulates the feeling of what it must feel to be in his position that it’s hard to blame the film for being too effective.
The open-ended language used to convey the film will lead to detractions of taste and preference, which is fine. Moonlight, like all great visions, is a hard recommendation as it’s hard to predict the effect it will have on the viewer until after they’ve watched it, and for some it won’t be interesting enough for them to finish. It can’t be helped, but it can’t be held accountable either for making the right choice at the cost of audience investment.
Broadly put, Moonlight is a passionate, emotional, complete piece of cinema that will mean the most to those who it will mean the most to.