Film review | Moonlight: A personal opus in miniature

Jenkins masterfully unpicks Chiron’s psyche at key moments in his life, allowing for visual interludes that interlace memory and dream life to unfold the emotional beats of the story • 5/5

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
28 March 2017, 7:40am
Alex Hibbert as the young Chiron in the award-winning coming of age story, Moonlight
Alex Hibbert as the young Chiron in the award-winning coming of age story, Moonlight
Charting the growth of its troubled protagonist, Chiron (Alex Hibbert/Ashton Sanders/Trevante Rhodes) through three key stages of his life, this year’s Best Picture winning film, Moonlight, introduces us to him as a young schoolboy tormented by his peers for what they already perceive to be his homosexual leanings. But the real trouble comes back to haunt him at home, as his drug addicted single mother Paula (Naomie Harris) offers him no security or guidance. But this is at least temporarily provided by Juan (Mahershala Ali) who is, however a drug dealer himself. A ray of hope appears in the form of Chiron’s childhood best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/André Holland), but Chrion’s desires may just prove too unorthodox for even the most tolerant members in his circle.

Paradoxically, the film’s origins as a stage play – it is based on an unpublished play titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney – do very little to constrict director Barry Jenkins’ visual artistry, and that of cinematographer James Laxton. In fact, in a strange way the formal strictness of the narrative, and limited cast of recurring characters, help to give a concise and beautiful aesthetic thread – and strategically deployed narrative motifs – and allow them to come to full bloom on the big screen.

Though it covers nothing less than three key stages of its protagonist’s life – like a more socially charged version of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – Moonlight is not a ‘busy’ film. It’s not the kind of movie that shambles from one act to another in the hope of keeping you hooked with every frame, and whose resolution will make you feel like you’ve got enough bang for your buck. Instead – and starting from the evocative image that gives the film its title and offers up its final frame – what we get is nothing short of poetry...in the real sense of the word. We’re not made to trudge through Chiron’s life. Neither are we led to believe that the final act will be a climax; a catharsis offered up to right the wrongs of the past and make us, the audience, feel good.

Angst: Ashton Sanders
Angst: Ashton Sanders
Jenkins masterfully unpicks Chiron’s psyche at key moments in his life, allowing for visual interludes that interlace memory and dream life to unfold the emotional beats of the story, while character interaction does the rest of the work through sparsely selected dialogue that reveals plenty with very little. Of course, this is successful in large part due to the actors themselves. Mahershala Ali’s Oscar is certainly deserved, but Naomie Harris’ efforts are also highly commendable, given how her character could very easily have slipped into racially stereotyped cliché. And a suave and emotionally sensitive turn from Andre Holland (as adult Kevin) rounds things off beautifully.

Moonlight is nothing short of a personal and political opus told with the kind of effortless grace that only a filmmaker in full possession of his aesthetic senses could pull off. What it may lack in contextual detail it more than makes up for in the power of its intimate portrayal of a tortured inner life coming to the fore, in something that only vaguely resembles a ‘happy ending’. 

Debates about whether or not the film deserved its Best Picture gong – over and above the viral-friendly fracas on Oscar night – can rage forever and ad nauseum, but ultimately that’s all just sound and fury, signifying nothing. Award or no award, this is a film that packs an emotional punch. One that is delivered with true dignity and poise.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...