Starring Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Alex Hibbert. Directed by Barry Jenkins. (2016, 111 min).
Each year, I try to see as many Best Picture nominees as I can prior to the Oscars; having more horses in the race makes the big night more entertaining. Some of the movies I actually want to see, others I feel obligated to. Barry Jenkins' Moonlight fell under the latter category, mainly because I knew almost nothing about the film, the director or most of the actors. I review hundreds of movies a year on this site, most of which I've either seen before or at-least have some background knowledge of. Now that I think about it, Moonlight is the first high profile film I've approached completely cold in a long time. Maybe that's why it was such a wonderful surprise.
The film is divided into three chapters, each chronicling a defining moment in the life of Chiron, an introverted young African-American from a tough neighborhood in Miami. In chapter one, Chiron finds respite from abuse at home and school when he meets a local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his wife, Teresa (Janelle Monae). Ironically, they provide Chiron with more love and stability than his crack-addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). In the second chapter, Chiron is an alienated teen whose only friend, Kevin, has him questioning is own sexuality. Kevin later forsakes their friendship when a local gang leader forces him to join in on beating Chiron as an initiation. Chiron's retaliation is the catalyst for the direction his life will take afterwards.
|"It's called Dine n' Dash, kid. You'll love it."|
The final, most poignant, chapter sees Chiron as an adult, now a drug dealer living in Atlanta. Since the high school incident, jail and the streets have hardened him. Other than his mother (living in a rehab facility), he has remained alone and doesn't open himself up to anyone. All that changes with an unexpected call from Kevin, whom he hasn't seen in ten years.
To elaborate much further would mean providing spoilers, but the resolution of the final act is the only way Moonlight could have ended without undermining the entire narrative. As downbeat - and difficult to watch - as the film is at times, the whole chapter is quietly powerful and tremendously moving. Much of that is due to the performances. As the adult Chiron and Kevin, Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland provide the right amounts of subtlety that make their scenes together work, aided immeasurably from groundwork laid down by the young actors who played them in previous chapters.
|"Dine n' Dash? Who taught you that, man?"|
The best performances, though, belong to Ali and Harris (both nominated for Oscars). With a look and mannerisms reminiscent of a young Louis Gossett Jr., Ali easily makes Juan so likable and complex that we tend to forget the character is a streetwise drug dealer. Harris, the only actor to appear in all three chapters, has the biggest challenge. As Paula, who runs the gamut from bitter and hateful to sadly sympathetic, Harris dominates (in a good way) the relatively few scenes she appears in.
Only his second feature film, writer/director Barry Jenkins has also earned Oscar nominations in both categories. With the La La Land juggernaut in full swing, I don't know how many trophies he or Moonlight will take home, but the accolades are well deserved. This is a beautifully-shot, perfectly performed character study that resonates long after it's over.
FEATURETTES: "Ensemble of Emotion: The Making of Moonlight"; "Poetry Through Collaboration: The Music of Moonlight"; "Cruel Beauty: Filming in Miami"
AUDIO COMMENTARY BY DIRECTOR BARRY JENKINS
MEE-OW! BETTER THAN A FRESH CAN O' TUNA.