Reviewed by Nicholas Vandeloecht
Here are the five steps to seeing Moonlight.
1) Buy a ticket to go see Moonlight
2) Go see Moonlight
3) Walk out to your car in stunned silence.
4) Try to convince yourself you are a person who does not feel feelings even though the movie in many ways examines the misguided nature of that mentality
5) Hold your tears still, but feel like you are crying your feelings through your fingers into a Word document.
And that’s how you see Moonlight!
Directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is divided into three chapters and shows how a young boy, Chiron, is raised in Miami and grows into a young man who is surrounded by a drug-ridden community and questions about his own sexuality. He struggles both his drug addict mother, played hauntingly by Naomie Harris, and the fact that the truth about himself doesn’t mesh very well with the homophobic people in his community.
This is a visually powerful, moving and chilling tale about not being accepted for who you are by your general peers and by your own blood family, and how much it hurts to not be accepted regardless of the nasty nature of those who you want to be accepted by. You really become immersed into this setting of Miami, seeing it for both its tranquility and calmness when Chiron visits the beach, and also for its ugliness and deadliness in the broken down neighborhoods where drugs are rampant.
The performances are all just…wow. Well, okay, there are some moments, particularly in the second act, where I felt the characters got a little too cinematic and less believable, and there are some things said in the second and third acts I wanted to see instead of just hear about, but for the most part, these characters are real. This is a film about subtlety, and these actors know how to deliver quietly powerful performances as showcased in Moonlight. The closing scenes in particular are so tense and brimming with all these unspoken thoughts and feelings that are just hanging in the air like thick cigarette smoke. There are dream sequences in here that stick with you but don’t feel jarring or out of place even though the rest of the movie flows to the beat of slow-moving reality.
The three actors who play Chiron – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes – all bring their A-game, showcasing their own differences in their portrayals without neglecting Chiron’s quiet core so as to reflect how people change over time while dealing with the same nagging lifelong questions about themselves and the people around them. The three actors who play Chiron’s close friend Kevin also remain consistent in showing how Kevin contrasts with Chiron throughout life. Kevin is also a changing character who is reaching his own conclusions about himself and where he fits into an unforgiving world.
The first act might come off as slow-moving to some, but takes the time it needs to fantastically set up Chiron and the people he grows up with – his troubled mother, who is both terrifying and also pitiable, Mahershala Ali in an incredible role as Juan, a drug dealer who Chiron meets at the start of the film, and Janelle Monae as Juan’s partner Teresa. I won’t say much except that Juan’s character gives two of the film’s most powerful scenes. One film establishes the peacefulness that Chiron seeks amidst this established world of misery and pain, and another, in near tear-jerking fashion, captures the over-arching questions that the film will deal with.
I felt the second act had some forced moments that, again, felt more cinematic than grounded in reality as did the rest of the film, but the awkwardness and fear that teen Chiron experiences is still well-done and well-acted, and the way that these sometimes-forced scenes are handled is still commendable for the tension and anxiety that they produce in both the characters and audience.
And the final scene takes the movie and everything that the earlier acts had built up and elevates it all to a whole new level, showing character transformations and interactions that are simply spellbinding. A scene featuring Harris in this third act would feel powerful in any other film, except here it separates two stellar moments featuring Chiron’s personal dilemmas that are also among the best moments I’ve seen in film.
To echo what other reviewers have said, the closing scenes at the end may as well have been someone setting up a hidden camera in certain locations and then filming real conversations. Everything that the characters say in these scenes is totally grounded in daily dialogue, yet the way it is handled here is totally captivating. These are quiet characters that say a lot through their facial expressions and subtle movements. It draws you in and, the way it’s shot, you feel like you are right there in that moment with them.
It’s an incredibly personal film with a classic message – be who you are – while showing how hard that message still is for people, particularly black men struggling with their sexuality and masculinity, to embrace and be okay with.
It’s a world that totally comes to life without relying wholly on dramatics to tell a beautifully moving and heartbreaking story. It’s a movie that initially presents a very specific dilemma that several viewers out there will probably never experience, and then wrap up the story in a way that shows universal elements and themes that almost everyone seeing this film will be able to look at and say, “I totally know what that’s like.”
That’s the beauty of Moonlight, and that’s why it’s exceptional film-making.
Moonlight gets a 9.8.