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Moonlight has swept 2016’s cinematic landscape by storm. As wider audiences gain exposure to the film, word of mouth travels from the speed of smell to the speed of light. For a smaller independent picture, the coming-of-age story has amassed a box office of $8 million thus far. Much talk has commenced of director Barry Jenkins claiming a Best Director nomination at the next Oscars, as well as the feature itself being nominated for Best Picture. With all of that in mind prior to seeing Moonlight, the primary question is: can it possibly measure up? Fortunately, the movie not only lives up to such high expectations, but easily claims a spot in my personal “best of the year” discussion.
If you’re in the dark on the premise, watching the trailer may or may not aid with that, but you will catch glimpses of the stellar directing. A story from Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight covers three specific phases in the life of our protagonist, Chiron, A.K.A. Little and later known as Black. The first third of the flick shows Chiron’s life as a bullied child (played by Alex Hibbert), where he’s given the undesirable nickname of “Little.” The second third sees Chiron’s life as a still-bullied teenager (played by Ashton Sanders), where he begins exploring his sexuality. The final third reveals adult Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes), now nicknamed “Black” (a nickname he chose this time), where he’s clearly transformed his attitude from the meek, bullied kid and elected for a questionable path.
To dive a little deeper into each of the three acts while still avoiding spoilers, the first featuring child Chiron introduces us to his upbringing. At home, his mother Paula (played by Naomie Harris) harbors a bitterness towards her son’s existence, but simultaneously wants him around at all times. We see glimpses of her drug addiction, which is appropriate since child Chiron wouldn’t have immediately recognized the signs. While on the subject, Harris’s acting as Paula is as layered as any other in this film or on screen this year. It’s a mashup of heartbreak, torture, self-destruction, and adoration, and it’s a marvel to witness.
We’re also introduced to Juan (Mahershala Ali), who makes his living as a drug dealer and stumbles upon Chiron as he hides from bullies. Juan lives with his candid girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), and the two quickly warm up to Chiron and become parental figures to him over time. I should state that Mahershala Ali deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor, as his performance in Moonlight is of the highest quality. He illustrates how you can give a nuanced, quiet portrayal and be still so charming and likable. The same could be said for Janelle Monae, which is a surprise to me considering I only knew of her work as a musician before.
In the 2nd act, we’re given more of Chiron’s friendship with longtime friend Kevin (played in act 1 by Jaden Piner and here by Jharrel Jerome). Chiron is also more aware of his mother’s substance abuse as she spirals wildly out of control at times. What’s most crucial to Chiron’s story in Moonlight is how he copes with his homosexuality. In act two, we see his relationship with Kevin blossom into something more privately, while at school, Chiron is constantly and even violently bullied for even being perceived as gay. At times, the 2nd act can be hard to watch, but there’s definitely a moment of “redemption” at the end where Chiron makes a choice that defines him going into adulthood.
This brings us to act three, where Chiron is a fully-grown man, but his demeanor from the first two acts has completely changed. Instead of being intimidated by his surroundings, he’s the one perpetuating the intimidation at times. As a defense mechanism against a lifetime of being bullied, Chiron has hardened himself and nicknamed himself “Black.” The focus on the final act is how Chiron can reconcile this persona with his true self, and it’s as poetic and beautiful to watch as it sounds. The cherry on top is the immensely emotion-driven gratifying ending. Chiron is distant from his childhood friend Kevin (now played by Andre Holland), and their expected reunion is all appropriately subdued, awkward, and fulfilling.
As I referenced in my title, Moonlight has striking similarities to 2014’s Boyhood, the film that took director Richard Linklater 12 years to make. However, over the course of those 12 years, Linklater focused on reuniting his desired actors and forgot to weave a tangible plot into the coming-of-age picture. I know I’m in the minority on this opinion considering the film’s high praise, but for me, Moonlight accomplishes what Boyhood attempted, but without the project’s same longevity. Instead, brilliant director Barry Jenkins manages to construct a beautiful film over the span of two or more decades, using actors that somewhat resemble each other at each age, and it works. It works on a level not just better than Boyhood, but better than almost every movie this year.
Moonlight is certainly a quiet affair, but beneath its ambience, you have nuanced performances occupied with emotion, excellent musical choices, and some of the best cinematography and directing choices you’ll see in 2016. The current buzz still remains as loud as ever that this picture will see a lot of recognition come award season in the first quarter of 2017, and all of that buzz is very well deserved. I’m anticipating the directing, Ali’s work as Juan, the feature itself, and maybe Harris as Paula to be highlighted on the award circuit repeatedly. For all of its unconventional and appreciated approaches, you’ll remember how much you connect with Moonlight on a personal level, even if you didn’t live Chiron’s life. This isn’t just must-see cinema; it’s must-see ASAP cinema.