When writers and critics point out that the Oscars have improved their notorious diversity problem this year, this is most likely the film that dominates their mind. Here is a thought-inspiring coming-of-age drama with an all-black cast and a black director that touches on everything from homophobia, to societal ideas on masculinity, and how one single life might evolve if these harsh realities are involved. It is all focalized through Chiron – one single black boy, played with perfection by three different actors at different ages.
Based on a book called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and directed confidently by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight moves through situations we recognise in environments we do not often explore; where the most insufficiently manly boy in the neighborhood gets chased and beaten, and seen in an even worse light if, God forbid, he dares weep in response to his treatment. The film has three chapters, eached named after the different names/nicknames used for the main character throughout his life.
In the first chapter, “i. Little”, Chiron is a young boy (played by Alex Hibbert) in an undisclosed ‘hood with no friends to speak of until he meets the friendly Kevin (Jaden Piner), no father in his life until that role is fulfilled by a remarkably wise drug-dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, excellent), and an addicted and abusive mother (Naomie Harris, also excellent), who may or may not be getting her feelgoods from someone who intended to be a positive influence on Little’s life. That nickname, of course, is one given to Chiron by local bullies due to his small size as well as his way of being.
Chapter 2 is called “ii. Chiron” and shows him as an ostracized high school student. At this point he is played by Ashton Sanders, who doesn’t try to mimic Alex Hibbert in any way but still somehow convinces us that this is the same little boy we saw before. And though this is where he finds something truly special in his friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), this chapter is where his life starts to take a worse turn. I won’t go into too much detail as to how, but when I point out that the chapter “iii. Black” has the protagonist in a spot similar to that of the man who raised and protected him, chances are you get the idea.
Yet even as the film focuses almost exclusively on this one boy/man, it still encapsulates many human lives and is sure to resonate with many viewers. Appropriately, the whole thing is filmed with a short depth of field; the characters are always in focus whilst anything that goes on in the backgrounds remains blurry. It’s an unusual decision and incredibly fascinating to watch.
But what would such a deep exploration of characters be without some frankly stunning performances? I have already praised the three actors playing Chiron at three different points in his life, but also commendable are Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris (both of them up for well-deserved Oscar statues as we speak), as well as the lesser known performers that portray the different versions of Kevin, Chiron’s unrelenting bullies, and so forth. In many scenes, the facial expressions of the characters speak far louder than their words. We hear what they’re saying; we can also tell what they’re thinking.
The music by Nicholas Britell is hypnotizing and even far out of this world, which is an interesting complement to the harsh reality of the script and directing. It is also numerous degrees more welcome than had they used generic R&B, hip hop, rap pop, this shit, or whatever a less skilled filmmaker may have relied on just because of the urban setting. Whenever a filmmaker has the restraint and/or wisdom to avert those sort of clichés and pandering tactics, it is hard not to appreciate the final product even more.
It may not be a popular opinion to deem this film a much more powerful one than Manchester by the Sea, but it does have a superior style, better child and teen actors, and a satisfactory ending that moved me in all sorts of manners. They are equally intricate when it comes to editing, shots, and direction; yet Moonlight doesn’t seem to have as many things weighing it down in retrospect. It’s a movie that gets better the more I think about it and is definitely one you’ll want to see before the ceremony. My words can’t do its scope justice. You may disagree with me about Manchester by the Sea and Lion, but you must give me this one.
As always, here is a trailer and my final rating. I know who I’ll be rooting for during the Oscar’s show in less than two weeks. But then, I have a few movies left to watch and I’ll most likely not review the ones that don’t impress me particularly. As for La La Land, we’ll see.