Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 51 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for some Sexuality, Drug Use, brief Violence, and Language throughout
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Written by: Barry Jenkins
(based on the play IN MOONLIGHT BLACK BOYS LOOK BLUE by Tarell Alvin McCraney)
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae & Mahershala Ali
Barry Jenkins’s MOONLIGHT has a few notable distinctions right off the bat. This film is the 89th winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture. The film is actually adapted from an unpublished play by Tarell Alvin McCraney and tackles sensitive subject matter. Besides being the first film with an all-black cast to win Best Picture and the first LGBT movie to win that prestigious award, MOONLIGHT is also one of the lowest-grossing Best Picture winners ever. Whether or not the Academy threw MOONLIGHT an award because it was the most diverse film in competition is an argument that I won’t tackle here. Having finally seen this acclaimed drama, MOONLIGHT plays like a gayer, blacker BOYHOOD and that’s not a bad thing. I’d argue that this is one of the most human films to come along in quite some time.
MOONLIGHT follows a complex character at three different points in his life. We see a childhood Chiron (Alex Hibbert) living in a neglectful home and making friends with a drug dealer/father figure Juan (Mahershala Ali). We see teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) discovering first love and searching for who he is as a person (as most teenagers do), while encountering bullying from classmates and abusive from his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris). Finally, we see adult Chiron (Trevante Roberts) making questionable choices in life and catching up with an old friend (Andre Holland). While this synopsis may not sound especially exciting, the performances, style and dialogue are what really make MOONLIGHT into a stellar viewing experience. This realistic slice-of-life drama is inspiring, depressing, and beautiful.
MOONLIGHT’s three-part narrative is brought to life with gorgeous cinematography and a sense of realism that I didn’t expect. Unlike 2014’s slightly overrated BOYHOOD, this film simply captures important moments in its protagonist’s life that help shape his identity as a whole. Whereas Richard Linklater’s lengthy drama seems to occasionally pad its running time with filler, MOONLIGHT’s scenes serve a purpose as to where the character eventually ends up and where he might go from that point onward. It’s a film about life that spoke to many cast and crew members on the set, some of whom specifically worked on this movie because it hit home for them. This film will also likely hit home for anyone who’s ever been afraid to be themselves and has encountered adversity (at school and/or at home). Basically, MOONLIGHT will emotionally move a lot of people.
MOONLIGHT’s performances are stellar across the board. The biggest acting accomplishment here is that Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Roberts all convincingly portray the same character. While Hibbert and Sanders seemed believable enough at the start, I didn’t initially buy that Trevante Roberts would fit the bill. However, his unique look is actually tied into the screenplay and he moves the viewer into believing that he’s the adult version of Chiron. To a lesser extent, Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland accomplish a similar feat as an occasionally seen side character.
As far as the supporting performances go, Mahershala Ali more than earned his Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor as drug dealer/mentor Juan. Ali portrays this complicated character as a good man with a bad job and gives him a fleshed-out personality as he’s well aware that he’s rough around the edges. His interactions with young Hibbert are easily some of the film’s biggest highlights and I wish that Ali had a bigger presence in the entire film. Janelle Monae is great as Juan’s caring girlfriend, who also becomes a big part of Chiron’s life. Finally, Naomie Harris is fantastic as Chiron’s abusive mother. She’s intimidating, infuriating and heartbreaking at different stages in the film. Harris’s character is a startlingly realistic portrayal of drug addiction and a life full of regrets.
Though I don’t have many complaints with MOONLIGHT, the three-part narrative occasionally feels disconnected in that it takes a while to catch up in each chapter. This is especially true when certain characters disappear altogether. Also, the ending seems a bit rushed. If an extra ten minutes had been tacked onto this film, it might have had a more well-rounded conclusion. Still, MOONLIGHT is pretty friggin’ fantastic! The performances are great, the colorful cinematography is beautiful, and the writing captures a sense of reality that few hard-hitting dramas manage to nail. If the premise and description of this movie intrigue you at all, then MOONLIGHT is bound to hit you right in the feels and will resonate long after the credits have rolled.