Review: 'Moonlight' is one of 2016's best movies
“Moonlight” is unlike any movie you’ll see in American multiplexes this year, and it may be the best movie this year because of that.
It’s small in scale, telling a story of a young black boy named Chiron navigating poverty, drug dealers and his homosexuality. It’s not a sequel or comic book movie. There’s no action, few laughs and no movie stars that audiences adore.
“Moonlight” strips all of those traditional movie traits from the silver screen and instead gives us something so honest, something so heart wrenching that it creates such empathy for its main character and makes audiences feel like they’ve known Chiron for decades.
The movie operates like a play in three parts, each section showing Chiron at a different age: grade school, high school and adulthood. Each act features a different actor as Chiron: Alex R. Hibbert as a quiet, prepubescent Chiron, Ashton Sanders as the scrawny but angry teenager and Trevante Rhodes as a hulking and drug-dealing adult. We see him deal with his drug-addicted and negligent mother Paula, played with emphatic realism by Naomi Harris, but then also come under the careful tutelage of Juan, Mahershala Ali, a local drug kingpin who guides the boy like the father Chiron never had.
In a real world where the Black Lives Matter movement has taken foothold on American discourse, “Moonlight” seems to be echoing back with “black stories matter, too.” A movie about poverty and drug dealing in black neighborhoods would often be dramatized to include big shootouts and drug busts. Not with “Moonlight.” This is a movie much more interested in between the real lives caught in the drugs and poverty.
Though the movie packages itself as a traditional coming-of-age movie set in crime-riddled Miami neighborhood of Liberty City, “Moonlight” becomes much more than that. The movie gently winds its way into the story of a young man coming to grips with his sexual orientation.
Many movies have dealt with the subject of coming out, or have tackled stigmas society associates with gay men, but few movies have wrestled with the idea of someone discovering their own sexuality and the world reacting to it in such an involved and intimate way. When Chiron asks Juan what a particular gay slur that begins with "f" means, and if he himself is the wretched slur that schoolyard bullies have hurdled at him, we see both coming to grips with how to handle the moment. It’s a short scene, and not dramatized with a long speech or big, emotional outbursts, but it’s a moment that seems straight out of everyday life.
When Chiron is in high school, he becomes the target of a bully named Terrel, who stalks him, beats him and verbally taunts him every second he can. We see how each word and blow tares right through Chiron thanks to Sanders’ subtle performance. All the emotions are in his darting eyes and small grimaces, until his character can’t take anymore.
Chiron’s foil in his sexual awakening is Kevin, who is also played by three actors. Together, on a dark sandy Miami beach, they share their first, hesitant kiss. With only the moonlight enveloping them, this scene on the beach is cast with a soft light emblematic of the shyness of the two boys.
There are many moments in “Moonlight,” like the beach scene, where small moments are turned into ravishing displays of picturesque artistry.
Even in darker moments, like when Paula stands at the end of a hallway in her apartment screaming at her son, the moment is slowed to a crawl and lit with bright pink neon lights that bounce off purple and green walls around her. The colors pop as we see the mother scream like a wounded animal. The visual beauty sears the image into your brain, and with it the wrath of drug-addicted mother.
The movie’s deft ability to make scenes breathe with reality while also creating visual flourishes comes from director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins, who in only his second film has struck a perfect balance between a cinematic feel and personable honesty in storytelling.
When the movie gets to the third and final act, Chiron is musclebound and wearing gold-plated grills over his teeth. We think maybe he’s shaken all the issues of his past life. But in those last moments, when he comes face-to-face with his mother and Kevin for the first time in a decade, the movie hits its emotionally rewarding high point.
The movie’s real impact comes after the credits roll. In reflection, “Moonlight” seems like more like a memory than a movie. Grounded in realism, stark in its beauty and emotionally impactful, it plants itself in the brain and won’t fade away because audiences will feel they were in Chiron’s shoes.
Four out of four stars.
"Moonlight" is now playing at FilmScene and Sycamore Theatre in Iowa City.
Reach Zach Berg a t 319-887-5412, firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @ZacharyBerg.