Monday, December 26, 2016

Movie Review: "Moonlight"

Figuring out who you are, finding your place in this world can be difficult for anyone, especially if you get the sense you are different from others. This journey of self-discovery is at the crux of Barry Jenkins' spare, beautiful, and moving film, Moonlight.

The movie is told in three different segments, "Little," "Chiron," and "Black," three names which Chiron, a young boy growing up in a rough Miami neighborhood, is called. In the first segment, he is a young, wide-eyed boy who walks at a slow, dreamy pace, generally keeping his head down and barely speaking, and he doesn't understand why the other kids bully him and call him "soft."

While fleeing from bullies in an abandoned building, he encounters Juan (House of Cards' Mahershala Ali), the neighborhood's drug dealer. The boy awakens Juan's protective instincts, and once he realizes that Chiron's mother (Naomie Harris), a nurse struggling with drug addiction and ways to feed that addiction, isn't providing much in the area of parenting, Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) become guardians of sorts, although they find it difficult to break through the boy's shell.

In the second segment, Chiron is a high school student still trying to find his way clear of his bullying classmates, who seem to up the ante at every turn, and his mother, who is fully in addiction's grip. Only one friend, Kevin, seems to understand what he is going through, yet that friendship is quickly exploited as well. Chiron remembers Juan's advice about carving out his own path in the world and not letting anyone decide who he is or should be.

In the third segment, approximately 10 years later, Chiron is a powerful drug dealer in Atlanta, becoming almost a mirror of what Juan was when they first met. Out of the blue, he hears from Kevin, who is a cook at a restaurant in Miami, and he invites Chiron to visit sometime so he can make him a meal. Kevin is surprised at how quickly Chiron shows up, and both men are surprised at how the other has changed, and where their lives have taken them.

Obviously there are many details between the lines that I've left out of my synopsis, because the beauty of this film lies in watching the story and Chiron's life develop. This is, for the most part, a quiet movie—there are sparks from time to time, but much of the plot unfolds in Chiron's expressions and actions rather than dialogue. At times, Jenkins leaves some blanks for you to fill in, so one person may see something differently than another.

The acting in Moonlight is extraordinary. Harris is alternately fiery and powerless, and you both sympathize with and hate her. Ali's performance, while rather short, is deservedly being recognized with film critics' awards and has a very good shot at being honored with an Oscar. Monáe, appearing in two films this year, proves she is as talented an actress as she is a singer. But the film belongs to the trio of actors who play Chiron—Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes. Each brings sensitivity and emotion to their performances, and there is a quiet fire you can see in each of their eyes.

At several points in the movie, Chiron is asked, "Who is you?" He doesn't necessarily have an answer, but Moonlight gives you insight into what—and who—drives this boy forward into the man he becomes. It's a beautiful, thoughtful movie, and really unlike anything I've seen in some time.


  1. Great review! I definitely want to see this one. I didn't realize that Monae was in it.

  2. She's in two movies this year, this one and "Hidden Figures," and she's great in both!