So tonight is the night of the Oscars and I wanted to see as many of the major Oscar nominated films as possible, although I only managed to see four of them, three of them being Arrival, Hidden Figures and La La Land. The last one I saw is the one that I wanted to see the most (that I hadn’t seen at TIFF), Moonlight. After hearing nothing but praise for this film, I couldn’t wait to see it, to see if the film could meet those expectations, and I have to say it did not, it exceed them in every possible way.
The film focuses on three stages in the life of Chiron, a black man living in Miami, mainly focusing on his burgeoning sexuality, the homophobic bullying he receives as a result and his relationships with the people around him, three people in particular: his abusive mum Paula, his best (and only) friend Kevin and Juan, a drug dealer who takes on the role of a father to Chiron. There have been quite a few things I’ve seen comparing this structure to that of Boyhood, but I don’t think that’s fair. Boyhood is a time capsule, focused on time around the characters and how that impacts them, in Moonlight, the focus is squarely on the characters and their emotional states in each time, changing for good or bad throughout the years. This focus on character gives the film a strong emotional depth throughout, reflecting how the characters evolve throughout the years, the issues of friendship, trust, addiction and sexuality faced by all of them throughout the years. This helps to create some beautiful moments throughout the film, helping to create a powerful film throughout.
The performances though are what make the film. As Chiron, we get incredible three way performances from Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, each of them bringing something different to the character. Hibbert, as the youngest Chiron, does a lot of acting through body language and facial expression, creating a quietly powerful performance, Sanders, as the teenage Chiron, has a seething anger under the surface, hiding a fragile emotional state which is beautifully done, and Rhodes has a great vulnerability to the character, despite being the most physically imposing, which further shows the fragility in the character. As Kevin meanwhile, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland give excellent performances. Whilst Piner and Jerome are excellent (especially a heartbreaking moment in Jerome’s performance when he’s forced to hit Chiron), it’s Holland who gives the best performance as Kevin, an emotional edge and a sense of pain and regret that the others don’t quite have (albeit intentionally). The standout in the first third of the film is easily Mahershala Ali (who is fast becoming one of my favourite actors) as Juan. There’s this sense of protectionism and parental affection that Ali gives throughout his performance, creating a warm edge that lets you understand why Chiron looks up to him, along with a physically imposing nature that solidifies his status as a drug dealer. The best moments from his performance though come a sense of shame and grief he has through his actions as a drug dealer, again done without dialogue. As Theresa, Juan’s girlfriend who looks after Chiron, Janelle Monae is great, giving a strong, affectionate nature throughout. For me though, the best performance in the film was Naomi Harris as Chiron’s mum, Paula. Her performance runs the whole emotional gambit, ranging from quiet and affectionate when we first see her, slowly growing more desperate and angry as she falls further into her drug addiction before an incredible powerful moment in her final scene which reduced me to floods of tears.
On a technical level, the film is a standout as well. A large portion of the film is told with very little dialogue, many key elements of the plot being made clear through the body language of the actors, along with the visual storytelling in the background of scenes, such as knowing about Paula’s drug addiction when we see she sold the TV she has to pay for drugs, told through a shot showing the lack of a TV (I’d go into more detail but I don’t want to risk spoiling the film), with praise going to director Barry Jenkins and DP James Laxton for creating these shots. The editing is excellent throughout, adding to the visual storytelling in the film and establishing clear continuity between the different time periods. The music is incredible, adding to the tone of scenes, the music doing as vital a job of telling the story as the visuals. Moonlight is a firm reminder of the brilliance of storytelling without using dialogue.
Overall, Moonlight is a masterpiece. It takes a story that could very easily have turned preachy and instead creates a raw, powerful, intimate look at the life of a man who has been given the worst possible hand in life, creating a moving, relatable, human story. This is a beautiful film, one that I feel everyone needs to see.
My Rating: 5/5