Film review: How I found magic in Moonlight

By Michael Upton | 06/03/2017

Film review: How I found magic in Moonlight

EVERY now and then, if you’re lucky, a film comes along that leaves a real mark on you.

I suspect Moonlight is going to be one of those films.

So much more than a straightforward coming of age drama, Barry Jenkins’ tale of hardship, awakening and identity boasts excellent performances from its ensemble cast, a moving narrative with real depth and cinematic visual flourishes worthy of a director with far more than just one previous movie under his belt.

Like many of its characters, Moonlight is not a book to be judged by its proverbial cover.

Jenkins deserves huge credit for the way he tells the story of his protagonist, Chiron, at three different stages of his life — childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

We may never know Chiron, given his verbal reticence at all ages, but Jenkins gives sufficient glimpses into his psyche and struggle to make us root for him, however conflicted we may feel about the path he eventually follows.

The director and his cinematographer James Laxton have a keen eye for stunning visuals, one sequence, where Chiron's childhood mentor Juan (Mahershala Ali) teaches him to swim standing out for its immersive, atmospheric qualities, standing out.

Another, in which the primary school-aged boy dangles his hand out of a car window as clouds’ reflections glide across the vehicle’s roof, is beautifully rendered.

The camera work throughout puts the viewer right at the heart of the action, Jenkins and Laxton regularly using extreme close-up to pick up the actors’ smallest movements and giving us Chiron’s literal point of view by showing us the world from his visual perspective.

The narrative — from a screenplay by Jenkins based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s original story — is expertly told through three acts, with Chiron played at each stage by a different actor.

Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes each give such impressive performances, imbuing Chiron with a common vulnerability, defiance, courage and sense of longing, that they all truly seem to inhabit the same character.

It’s a shame in a way that the Best Actor Oscar could not have been shared between them.

Jharrel Jerome and Andre Holland as his friend Kevin at 16 and as an adult respectively also more than hold their own.

There aren’t many female roles but Naomie Harris, as Chiron's drug-addled, manipulative mother, barely appears for ten minutes but has a powerful impact, while Janelle Monae as Juan’s kind-hearted, nurturing wife brings a warm heart to the film.

But the real standout, stealing the film while only appearing in its first third, is Ali (pictured above with Hibbert).

Juan — introduced in the opening scene as a small-time druglord — is a truly magnetic, massively charismatic figure, providing a much-needed father figure for Chiron, and he is perfectly played with charm and a glint in the eye by Ali.

A worthy winner of his landmark Best Supporting Actor gong.

Moonlight is a heart-wrenching, brutal and at times distressing watch, but it’s also shot through with moments of tenderness, love and beauty.

It’s a story about self-image and the face we show the world, about the extent to which race, sexuality and background can have an impact on who we are and how we live our lives, and about the walls we build around ourselves.

Most of all though, it is above the need we all have to be loved — our longing to belong.

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