It took winning the big Oscar for it to come to my local cinema, but MOONLIGHT was well worth the wait.
The life and times of Chiron (Alex R Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) as he tries to find his place in the world through childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
This is hypnotically dreamlike storytelling with the camera drifting through life just as the characters do. DP James Laxton either hangs close characters’ faces, taking in every nuance minutely or we float along just out of reach as they seek the answer to who they are. You’re in a trance of pristine visuals, fluid storytelling and heart-wrenching performances throughout. Mainstream film hasn’t had a notable example of magic-realism for a while, and it’s a joy to see the style return guided so delicately by writer-director Barry Jenkins.
Little; Chiron; Black. The three chapter headings mark where and how Chiron sees himself at any given time. Don’t expect any big twists or plot turns; this isn’t that kind of story. The story may be set in deprived Miami and feature dealers, addicts and gangsters, but only two guns are produced and neither are fired. People come and go, they get out and are trapped, they change in some ways and stay the same in others.
What finds these three actors are. I believed Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes were the same person at different stages at his life – they seem to adopt the same posture, the same phisical and facial tics, the same expressions of pain and relief, the same inner energy, determination and resolve. This is especially remarkable considering they never met during filming.
Chiron’s three key contradictory relationships that make him who he is – dealer mentor Juan (the excellent Mahershala Ali), whose relationship with Little remains innocent and never takes the dark turn you might expect; the destructive cycle of his hot/cold addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris) and Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland), who awakened, destroyed and rebuilt Chiron all over again. We see the ill-gotten gains of Juan’s business and Chiron’s mother is justified in flipping his accusations of irresponsibility back on him in a standout scene, but that doesn’t make him or partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe) any less of a kind couple. His mother may intermittently shun him, verbally abuse him and make him victim of her destructive lifestyle, but that doesn’t mean she loves Chiron any less. Kevin is a note of stability for Chiron from childhood, helping him discover his sexuality and gifting him rare moments of happiness, but he still commits the cruellest act in the film and changes Chiron forever. No wonder Chiron is living a lie as a wannabe Juan with ripped body and glittering grill when he and Kevin reconnect in adulthood. He’s never had consistency in his life and he’s been forced to metamorphosise to survive. “Chiron, is this you?” Kevin asks. At this point, he doesn’t know himself.
I found the middle chapter following Chiron in his painful and confusing teenage years to be the most compelling, though the final stretch as he reconnects with his past and looks to the future leaves things uncertain but also strangely, and soothingly, positive. We get the feeling it will turn out OK for Chiron as long as he stops putting on a front and starts being who he wants to be, not what society dictates.
What a shame that Moonlight will only be talked about in relation to that Oscar gaff for the foreseeable future.What I predict is that only one of the two films will be lasting, still significant in years to come, and it’s not this one. Moonlight is an achingly beautiful story and an important and high-impact one to be told in today’s America. SSP