Moonlight is a drama directed by Barry Jenkins, with a screenplay by Jenkins and story by Tarell Alvin McCraney. The film tells the story of Chiron, a young black kid balancing his dysfunctional home life and coming of age during the “War on Drugs” era in Miami, Florida. The story of his struggle to find himself is told across three distinct chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love while grappling with his own sexuality.
Back in August, I revealed Moonlight as No. 6 on the list of my Top 10 Most Anticipated Films of the fall movie season. In writing about my eagerness for the film’s release, I included the following quote from Justin Chang, a writer from the Los Angeles Times, about director Barry Jenkins’s second film: “He’s made a film that urges the viewer to look past Chiron’s outward appearance and his superficial signifiers of identity, climbing inside familiar stereotypes in order to quietly dismantle them from within . . . . [Moonlight] doesn’t say much; it says everything.” When I first came across that quote, it made me incredibly excited to see Moonlight. After having seen this film, Chang’s quote is more than just a review—it truly embodies the emotional brilliance of one of the best films 2016 had to offer.
Prior to Moonlight, I had never heard of Barry Jenkins. After seeing Moonlight, I am quite confident that this man has a long, successful future of filmmaking ahead of him. Jenkins’s storytelling in Moonlight was exceptional, and he fiercely tackled a delicate subject. Chiron (first known as “Little” and played by Alex Hibbert, then known simply as “Chiron” and played by Ashton Sanders) is an adolescent growing up in a poor neighborhood in Miami with an addict mother. All the while, he is struggling with his sexual identity at a time and in a culture where being gay was not accepted. Jenkins magnificently delineates Chiron’s difficult life with expressive palpability, depicting a wide variety of emotionally heart-wrenching “coming of age” moments in his life. Jenkins is clearly a natural-born storyteller, and his focus on the evolution of Chiron’s complicated relationship with his childhood friend Kevin is one of the film’s greatest assets.
As far as acting, Moonlight produces many remarkable performances. From Trevante Rhodes as the adult Chiron (known as “Black”) to André Holland’s composed performance as the adult Kevin, the film is packed with talent. However, the two performances that stand above the rest come from Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali. Harris plays Chiron’s mom Paula, a drug addict with emotionally abusive tendencies, and she brings a self-possessed intensity to the character. I hated Paula for her rejection of her son, but as the film progressed, I felt a sense of empathetic tenderness for her—this contrast is 100% due to Harris’s stunning performance.
The single greatest highlight of the film, though, is Mahershala Ali in his role as Juan, a crack dealer in Chiron’s neighborhood. Juan is such a polarizing character because of the duality that he represents. On the one hand, Juan is sensitive and caring—he finds “Little” and makes a concerted effort to look out for him. However, Juan also slings crack on the streets, including selling directly to Paula—thus, despite Juan’s commitment to being a father figure for Chiron, he is also directly contributing to the breakdown of Chiron’s home life. These characteristics make Juan utterly complex, and Ali gives the performance of a lifetime. It is no surprise he is considered the runaway favorite to win Best Supporting Actor—he deserves it. Ali’s striking portrayal is on full display in one of the most emotionally affecting scenes in any film this past year—at his dinner table one day, Juan has to fight back tears as “Little” asks him questions about what “faggot” means and if Juan sells drugs to his mother. It is one of the most powerful scenes I have ever watched, and Ali is the glue that holds it together. Bravo, Mahershala! Moonlight is rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout.
Moonlight trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9NJj12tJzqc&t=4s
Academy Award nominations for Moonlight:
Best Picture (Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, and Jeremy Kleiner)
Best Director (Barry Jenkins)
Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Mahershala Ali)
Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Naomie Harris)
Best Adapted Screenplay (Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney)
Best Original Score (Nicholas Britell)
Best Cinematography (James Laxton)
Best Film Editing (Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon)
Previous movies on the countdown of my Top 10 Films of 2016:
- O.J.: Made in America
- La La Land
- Nocturnal Animals