January 31, 2017.
Have you ever felt isolated from society, scared of expressing your true self to the world? Have you ever questioned the real you, and asked what the real you wants to make of yourself? Have you ever doubted yourself, and let the talk of others define how you view your identity? If you have answered yes to any of these questions then Moonlight is the movie for you. This film has been receiving almost unanimous critical praise, with some hailing it the “story of a lifetime.” I could not agree more. Moonlight is a movie that everybody can take something out of and apply to their own life. It’s universal. I got the feeling this is something I can watch once a year, and take something new out of it each time. Moonlight is a film that should be revisited by everyone when they take a new step or a new journey in their life, because what I saw was a transcending piece of moving art encapsulating life in its moments.
Moonlight is directed by Barry Jenkins and stars Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes who all play the character Chiron; an African-American boy who has to deal with growing up in urban Miami as a gay black man. The movie is literally divided into three acts. Act one stars a very young Chiron. Act two deals with high school Chiron. Act three deals with a fully mature Chiron. Moonlight’s structure helps us glimpse into a new mindset of Chiron every act. He matures throughout, but is very keen on remembering important moments from his past. It helps weave us through his childhood, adolescence, and maturity while commenting on the idea of how brief moments can shape our individual identity. Mahershala Ali’s character Juan is a prime example of this. He is a father like figure to young Chiron who has to deal with his job as Chiron’s mentor, but also a drug dealer in their neighborhood. Moonlight is a clay pot and director Barry Jenkins is the sculptor. He does an incredible job of using the film’s structure to centre and balance its themes.
This is a movie about moments. Every act ends on a moment that changes Chiron’s character. Cinematographer James Laxton wonderfully encases these moments by using extreme close ups on characters face. He makes the foreground the most important aspect to focus on the significance that these characters will have on Chiron. Shallow focus is the primary technique used in the film. The background becomes unclear and hazy showing the viewer the blistering humidity in Miami. It’s used to help the film achieve a dreamlike quality. The camera does not observe the events happening, but it become a part of them. This is most apparent when Juan takes young Chiron swimming in what is my favorite moment of the movie. You can see the waves splash up onto the lens, as we get a close up of Juan teaching Chiron the basics of how to swim. It’s a very real moment. We feel like we are in that very same ocean with them. Jenkins and Laxton impose the camera as a tangible part of Miami, creating a raw and realistic experience for the viewer.
Moonlight is not a plot focused movie. There is no big action or big reveal scene. This is a quiet, reflective film more focused on delivering its messages through story. A very similar movie to this is the 2003 film, Lost in Translation, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johanssen. Both have very miniscule plots but powerful stories to convey their themes of isolation and identity. All moments, big or small, form our identities and shape how we view ourselves as human beings. A personal story becomes a universal one in Moonlight and that is my favorite thing about it.
All three actors who portray Chiron are intrinsically linked by their quiet nature, but each one brings a new subtleness to the role. For example, Ashton Sanders plays the high school Chiron in act two. At this stage in his life Chiron is still an outsider, and very skinny and frail for his age. Sanders does a great job at infusing the egotism associated with high schoolers into Chiron. His aggression builds and builds until the climax at the end of the act. Subtle expressions and body behaviour like this is another reason Moonlight is so realistic. The two standout performances, however, come from Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris. Both are respectively nominated for Academy Awards deservingly so. Ali isn’t in the movie a whole lot, but every time he’s on screen it is essential. His role of the flawed mentor role begins Chiron’s journey to find his identity; and referencing the swimming scene again, his delivery of the line, “You in the the middle of the world now,” certainly stuck with me. Harris on the other hand brings a grotesque hatred to her role as Chiron’s dope head mother. Her transformation from act to act shows depth and range that not a lot of actors posses. The overall acting in Moonlight is phenomenal, and if there were an ensemble award at the Oscars it would win hands down.
Moonlight is a beautiful, poetic tail on universal themes dealing with isolation and finding your identity. The story of a black gay man growing up in today’s world is vital for contemporary audiences to see. Before Moonlight, I wasn’t sure if I was into the whole bare-bones plot thing that drove a lot of the art-house type films. Moonlight, however, is on a whole other level. The only real flaw I have with this film is that in the second act there is a rushed scene to force two characters to fight. The scene felt forced and I felt like it could have been elaborated more so the audience didn’t feel as manipulated in watching the ensuing action. Nevertheless, this is a very minor flaw that does not take away your experience watching the film. Moonlight is a movie about moments. As an audience member viewing this movie, make sure to observe and lose yourself in its moment because rarely does a movie make you contemplate who you are.