Leading up to the Oscars, I’ll be revisiting and reviewing all the Best Picture nominees. I’ll assess them on their own before bringing all the nominees together and breaking down which is truly worthy of the golden statue.
Today’s review is the tragic hopeful coming-of-age saga, Moonlight.
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring Trevante Rhodes, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali
Plot: A timeless story of human self-discovery and connection, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami. (via IMDB)
I think what makes Moonlight such an engrossing and compelling movie is the way it constantly sets up situations in which you are positive you can predict the outcome, but then shows you something you’ve never seen in a movie. These are characters that all too rarely are seen in this medium and this is a beautiful way of telling their stories.
I’m not sure what I was expecting with this movie other than I thought it would be something bigger. That might sound like a criticism but it’s the opposite. I was so impressed and the simplicity of the movie in just being true to the story they set out to tell. It really is just an immersion into the life of one boy as we watch him come to grips with who he is throughout the years. The success of such films hinges on the necessity to have the audience relate and sympathize with the main character. While Chiron is instantly sympathetic in this film, what’s truly impressive is how easily we connect with him and his world, despite having little in common with him. I’m didn’t struggle with any of the things Chiron deals with but the film does such a good job of making a real, well-rounded character. And again, the film doesn’t make this task easy for itself, casting three different actors to play the role of Chiron at different stages of his life.
A lot of what makes Chiron work is how perfectly he is cast in these three segments. The casting department really did a phenomenal job finding these actors who really give a unifed performance. Learning that the actors never met nor discussed how the character would be played is astounding to me. While Alex R. Hibbert and Ashton Sanders are fantastic, I give special acknowledgment to Trevante Rhodes. Here’s another example of the movie subverting my expectations, because when we’re introduced to adult Chiron (or “Black”) I immediately thought the film took a misstep. Here was his skinny, bullied kid transformed into a muscled-out thug- it felt false. But as soon as Black gets that phone call, I was blown away at how quickly he became that kid again. Rounding out the cast, Naomie Harris is great and understated as Chiron’s troubled mom, and Andre Holland is perfect as the adult Kevin. But in his short appearance, Mahershala Ali makes the biggest impact which is felt throughout the film, even as he’s gone. He is so compelling and his conflicted feelings are so heartbreaking, I only wish I could have spent more time with the character. I did feel that his exit from the film was a bit too abrupt and felt almost gimmicky in how underplayed it is, which is one of the few, small issues I have with the film. But his scene at the dinner table with Little is one of the best of last year and once again shows the movie giving you something unexpected without sacrificing authenticity.
Writer-director Barry Jenkins has a long and interesting career after this. The script is so sharp and so tight, with barely an once of fat on it. I always admire how a writer can strip down a movie to the bare essentials and Jenkins certainly succeeds at that. As a director, he has a beautiful and unique eye. The colors and framing of the film are really capture your attention and are very effective in key scenes. He also has the undervalued talent to let the audience sit in a scene and absorb the moment. A lot of directors would be uneasy with this film’s long, silent takes, but Jenkins knows how important these moments are for us to appreciate Chiron’s journey.
When I reviewed Hell or High Water, I commented on the fact that, as much as I liked the movie and was engaged with it, it’s not one that will stick him me. This film has and will leave an impression. I can’t say it affected me as much as Manchester by the Sea, but it’s a brilliant masterpiece and I hope it encourages filmmakers to tell these untold stories more often.