Our first London Film Festival review is about a film that’s importance is only matched by its beauty.
Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Naomi Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Trevante Rhodes
Release Date: 21st October, 2016 (US)
“At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”
It may be too early to say this, but Moonlight already feels like a modern American classic. On paper, it’s Boyhood by way of Straight Outta Compton, retaining both films larger-than-life nature while carving out its own unique identity. Barry Jenkins’ sophomore feature tells the tale of a homosexual young black man growing up in Miami. Tackling a wide range of themes, including prejudice, family and drug addiction, the film is at its most effective as a fascinating exploration of the meaning of masculinity.
Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the movie adopts a triptych narrative structure to examine three key periods of its troubled protagonist’s life. The man in question is called ‘Chiron’ – but he also goes by ‘Little’ & ‘Black’. Each name represents an individual chapter in his three-part tale, which takes him from a skinny, scared young boy beginning to understand how cruel the world can be, to a not-so-skinny, scared young man too afraid to let anybody in. It’s a powerful journey of self-discovery that’s sure to leave a lasting impact on anyone – regardless of sexual identity or race.
The three-act structure is both Moonlight‘s greatest strength and its most unfortunate weakness. It gives the film a larger sense of scale, helping Jenkins convey his hero’s long-term struggle. However, the transitions between acts can also feel a little disjointed. Each section is anchored by a powerful lead turn from a different young actor in Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders & Trevante Rhodes. All three shine as Chiron (Rhodes in particular), but you’re still left wanting to see a little more of each of them onscreen.
“Who is you, man?”
The supporting cast of characters play a crucial role in keeping the story as fluid as possible, with a few making welcome appearances in more than one segment. Naomi Harris is fascinating to watch as Chiron’s drug-addled mother, delivering a performance that’ll make the viewer question whether to pity or despise her. Janelle Monáe impresses in her feature film debut as one of the few positive influences in Chiron’s life, while Mahershala Ali is as magnetic as ever as Juan, the drug dealer with a heart of gold.
There’s a scene between Juan & Chiron (towards the end of the opening act) that’ll undoubtedly go down as one of my favorite scenes of 2016. I couldn’t possibly convey how beautiful it was through words – it’s one of those moments in film that genuinely has to be experienced. Despite all of the pain and anguish we as an audience are made to feel, Moonlight never loses sight of those little moments of magic. It’s quietly inspirational, it’s achingly romantic, and it’s undeniably beautiful to behold.
Oh, and it has one hell of an ending too.