Review: Moonlight gives light to the heavy struggles of life
11:57 17 February 2017
Barry Jenkins’ film shows life at its toughest and its most real, making it a worthy Oscar contender.
The central character in Moonlight has three names and three faces and we drop in on him three times: as a boy called Little (Alex Hibbert), a teenager called Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and a man called Black (Trevante Rhodes).
You’d expect a film that charts the journey from boy to man to be concerned with the passing of time, but Moonlight plays out in a vacuum, a suspended state, where time and the wider culture have no hold. It always seems to be the present day and, other than a couple of extras, there isn’t a white face in the film.
Barry Jenkin’s drama is strong on what is right in front of it. The camera is kept fixed on the foreground; the background is often a blur. His approach is to give a lightness to something that would usually be very heavy. Chiron’s mother (Naomie Harris) is a meth addict, the local drug dealer (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominated Mahershala Ali) becomes a surrogate father figure, he is bullied at school and struggles with his sexuality.
Most other writer/directors would’ve presented this tale as a very stern and browfurrowed look at The African American Experience. Jenkins gives us life – a tough life to be sure, but the film’s main thrust is the sense of being alive and the vitality of that, even when the life being lived isn’t up to much.
It simply flies through its first two thirds: you won’t believe he’s an adult already. In the final third Jenkins decides to bring the film to a halt, to bring some consequence and reflection to the years that have flown by. Viewers may also need a few minutes to adjust to this last Chiron: the gawky child has been transformed into musclebound 50 Cent lookalike.
This could be a decent outside bet to sneak the Oscar over La La Land because: it’s very good; they can’t keep giving it to films about Hollywood; to make amends for the Brokeback snub; giving it to a Big Black Gay film would make for a wagging finger anti-Trump statement about diversity.
But the values in Moonlight are, however inadvertently, generally conservative: drugs are bad, bullies have to be met with force, boys need fathers and races keep to themselves.