DIRECTOR: Barry Jenkins
PRODUCERS: Adele Romanski, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleimer
WRITERS: Barry Jenkins (screenplay), Tarell Alvin McCraney (story)
INITIAL RELEASE: September 2, 2016
RUNNING TIME: 111 minutes
STARRING: Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Alex Hibbert
So the Academy Awards are nearly upon us, and there’s a few films featured as nominees that have positioned themselves as the year’s “sweep film”- in other words, the film that snaffles up a whole lot of Oscars. Alongside La La Land and Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight is one of those films, with no less than nominations in 8 different categories. And, having recently seen it, I can see why.
Moonlight is an incredibly striking film. Now, when I say, “striking”, I don’t even mean that any specific sense of “striking”, just all of it, really…every last damn bit of it is striking. The soundtrack, the cinematography, it s direction, and performances, and perhaps most vitally, its story are all in their own way refreshingly unique and striking, hence the whole thing being, well…striking.
I’ll stop saying “striking” now, I promise.
Really though, Moonlight is a visual fest the likes of which I was rarely treated to this year. Fellow Best Picture nominee Arrival is Moonlight’s only close rival in terms of genuinely breath-taking cinematography, and even then, Moonlight has it beat by a wide margin. Moonlight’s world is a beautifully stark and vivid tableau of diffused and muted colours: at times, its visual qualities and direction slip into borderline surrealism and carry a bizarre and yet intensely engaging dream-like quality to them, that is at times both subdued, as well as very intense. While most of the film’s visuals are pretty memorable in their own right, there are some truly amazing shots and scenes that really burrow themselves into your mind’s eye: they’re the kind you often still see in your head days after you’ve seen them (which are, of course, the best kind) On the whole, Moonlight had this distinct “art house” quality to it that really took me by surprise, albeit in the best way possible.
Moonlight’s wonderful sensory qualities don’t stop at its cinematography, as it also has one of the most memorable scores from any more I’ve seen in the past year: a haunting medley of harsh violins accompanies the often surrealistic moments in Moonlight, and its leaves its mark: its sadness, beauty, and even an ominous creeping dread all mixed together to produce something that, as I was experiencing it, was just unquantifiable. Not since Drive have I seen a film that puts such a fascinating and unique lens what is otherwise a fairly grounded vision of reality, and it does wonders for Moonlight, placing it on a very different plane to similar films. Moonlight was worth your time alone for just how much of a sensory experience it is.
But of course, Moonlight’s visual and sensory qualities are all in service of its story, and it’s a very moving one at that. Moonlight is a heart-rending and unapologetic portrait of the struggles of sexual identity within a rigid and hostile cultural of overt black masculinity, and the repressive nature of the need to perform that masculinity. This story is told through the highly intimate and personal experiences of Moonlight’s protagonist Chiron (played at various stages of his life by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes), as he struggles with his own sexuality and trying to reconcile that with the realities of existing within the culture that he does. Moonlight’s story is intimate in more than just its focus and scale: it feels like a genuinely personal story, and real and heart-breaking experience transposed onto screen. While I’ve seen some critics note that the very specific and personal nature of the story might limit its wider cultural value, I would have to disagree with the sentiment: the fact that Moonlight is so intimate, and so personal, makes it so much easier to connect to, and its not difficult for anyone with even only a small level of wider cultural knowledge to see the larger issues that Moonlight’s story is critiquing and deconstructing through the careful and measured dissection of the three acts of Chiron’s life that Moonlight’s story present as significant turning points in his life. Its remarkable that Moonlight’s plot and story can hold so much meaning given what relatively little in the way of grand dramatic gestures there are, but that’s kind of why it works so well: everything is very scaled back, but also presented in an intensely intimate way that ties your psyche into that of Chiron’s. The events are small, but the mental and emotional ripples through Chiron from each of them are powerful.
As a comparison to Lion, which is in something of a similar vein as Moonlight, the performances and nature of the conflicts and drama in Moonlight are far more reserved, and a great deal subtler than the aforementioned Lion’s often frequent dips into melodrama. The entire (relatively small) cast gives splendid performance that captures just the right emotional cadence for each scene. I was particularly impressed by Sanders’ turn as a teenaged Chiron and Naomie Harris’ often gut-wrenching yet gut-churning performance as Chiron’s emotionally abusive mother, both of which served to make their relationship that felt uncomfortably genuine at times. While Moonlight often presents a heightened and slightly unreal sense of the reality it portrays, it’s the reserved and powerful performances of Moonlight’s cast that often serve as the authenticity and inherent “realness” of Moonlight’s vision.
To wrap the whole thing up, Moonlight is the kind of film the shows us a story and a world that we’re often not privy to: there’s been a growing outcry for Hollywood and the film industry to make a greater effort to tell the stories of all different kinds of people, and Moonlight’s heart-wrenching tale of sexual repression amidst culturally-reinforced masculinity from a perspective that isn’t often seen really goes a long way to proving the value of diversity in representation. If nothing else, should Moonlight turn out to be this year’s Oscar darling, it will be an Oscar darling whose cultural value will allow it to transcend its moment of glory and become an important film going forward, as what Moonlight grapples with, and the pains and struggles it articulate, have an eternal, and universal, value that should be honored beyond jus this year’s awards season.
So yeah, in case it wasn’t obvious, I whole-heartedly recommend Moonlight. It a powerfully different film that deserves your attention.