REVIEW: Moonlight (2016) by David Hart

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Anticipation:     5/5      If you asked me this question just a few months ago, I probably would have responded with, “What’s Moonlight?” This movie seemed to come out of nowhere. But there’s always at least one movie a year that sneaks up on me like this.  Last year it was Brooklyn, and if you know me (or listen to my podcast), you know that I absolutely fell in love with that movie. But it’s not two months ago, it is now. And the buzz around Moonlight has been powerful. It has been breaking per screen records in limited release and has critics frothing at the mouth at its brilliance. Add to that, it’s a movie about underrepresented people, whether you are talking about racial diversity or sexual diversity. So yeah, my expectations were sky high.

Final Verdict:    5/5   I don’t gush very often; I tend to be pretty picky. But here it comes.  Moonlight is brilliant, powerful, and devastating. Some movies are meant to be seen and enjoyed once (and there’s nothing wrong with that) and some films linger. They gain power with personal distance. Moonlight is one of the latter. It is getting a lot of praise.  That praise somehow did not prepare me for my experience in the theater. Thus far, Moonlight is 2016’s best film.

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Describing Moonlight is difficult at best. It is the story of one person’s struggle. Divided into three parts, child (Alex Hibbert), teenager (Ashton Sanders), and adult (Trevante Rhodes); any one of these stories is a fantastic short film. But these all build on one another in ways that you do not expect. These are great singular stories but they add up to a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

Moonlight got a lot of publicity because its main character is a person of color and LGBT, and this is important. Representation is key. But I do not believe that you will only respond to this emotionally if you fit into one of those two broad categories. Yes, Chiron’s blackness and his gayness are drastically important parts of his story. But this is for anyone who has ever struggled with identity. Moonlight talks at length, with very few words, about the masks we where, and the struggle to fit into our own skin.

The three performances of the main character (Little, Chiron, and Black, respectively) really cannot be pried apart and analyzed, or shouldn’t be. There is not a weak link. All three talented young actors truly inhabit the same character flawlessly.  In a film that has more than one actor play the same character, it is easy to lose sight of the arc. This never happens in Moonlight. Each one of the three performances informs the others. The casting is flawless, but in odd ways. If you were to look at these three actors, you might not see an automatic resemblance. This is especially true when you look at Trevante Rhodes in terms of size and muscle mass when compared to his teenage counterpart.  This becomes an important character point. A young gay man, bullied and beaten may put on many masks. Hyper-masculinity and stereotypical male pursuits are some of those masks. So something that could be a weakness in the film becomes a strength. But the phenomenal acting performances do not end with this character. If Mahershala Ali, who plays a father figure (who also happens to be the drug dealer who sells to Chiron’s mother) doesn’t at the very least get an Oscar nomination, something is very wrong.  When your main character is as reserved as Chiron, there is some heavy lifting to be done elsewhere. Ali, as well as Janelle Monae and Andre Holland are more than up to the task here.

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Many of these positives I have mentioned are attributable to the skill of the actors, but many of them are also due to writer/director Barry Jenkins. After seeing this film and drying my eyes, I headed to the internet to see what else he has directed. To my surprise, there is only one other feature film, Medicine for Melancholy. Moonlight does not look like the work of an inexperienced director. Each shot is painstakingly created and structured, the score is in perfect harmony with the emotionality of the film, and there is a sense of control, which fits not only the film but also the character’s world.

Here is usually the point where I talk about the negatives, but I am struggling to find them. Moonlight is a great film that deserves to be seen, needs to be seen. It is a film that tells many audience members a story that they cannot possibly have lived. But it also tells us something about ourselves. We have all, in one way or another, been in Chiron’s shoes. We have all dealt with pain, and felt that we do not fit. Moonlight is not necessarily happy or sad or uplifting or depressing.  But it is absolutely, wonderfully real.

Moonlight trailer

Here is an article published by CBC entitled: Masculinity and ‘Moonlight’: 8 Black Men Dissect Barry Jenkins’ Momentous Film

Be sure to check out David’s Podcast Pop Culture Case Study 

What did you think of Moonlight? Sound off in the comment section below!

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