Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review: Moonlight

Image courtesy of A24.
It's probably safe to skip past referring to Barry Jenkins as a director to watch and call him a major filmmaker with the release of his "Moonlight," which is the most impressive leap for a director from his debut to sophomore film that I've seen since Paul Thomas Anderson went from "Hard Eight" to "Boogie Nights."

Jenkins's first picture, "Medicine for Melancholy," was a charming, low budget indie that was set in San Francisco and appeared to have been influenced by Richard Linklater's "Before" movies, but his second film displays the hand of an assured director, from the terrific performances he draws from his entire cast to the gorgeous visuals, inspired use of music and ability to weave complex themes and ideas into a completely satisfying whole.

You'll likely see comparisons to a number of films - including everything from "Brokeback Mountain" and "Boyhood" to "Boyz n the Hood" or any other gritty drama featuring a coming of age story set amid an urban backdrop - and yet "Moonlight" defies being classified. It features a character who is - for all purposes - gay, but sexuality is only one of many concepts explored here. And while the entire cast is black, race is only one of many themes, rather than the picture's driving force.

We're never quite sure when the action is taking place - at times, it could be the 1980s, 1990s or even today - but there are three very distinct times during which the film's action takes place. Divided into three chapters - Little, Chiron and Black - the picture follows the story of Chiron, a shy, poor black kid growing up with a drug addicted mother in a rough neighborhood in Miami.

We first meet Chiron - who, at this point, is referred to as Little and played by Alex R. Hibbert - running from a group of kids who mean to do him harm. He hides out in an abandoned apartment, where he is discovered by Juan (Mahershala Ali, of "House of Cards"), a Cuban-born drug dealer who becomes a father figure to Chiron and, in the process, smashes every cliche we'd expect for a character who is obviously morally compromised. Juan's girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), also takes a shine to Chiron and gives him the motherly attention sorely lacking at home, where his actual mom (Naomie Harris) spends much of her time strung out.

In the second chapter, a quiet and mostly friendless teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is struggling through high school, where bullies make him a prime target. However, he has at least one friend in Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a lothario whom we met in the first chapter wrestling playfully with Chiron, seemingly much to the latter's pleasure. The two boys share an intimate moment on a beach that clearly acts as a pivotal life moment for Chiron, but it's later tainted after a group of boys - including Kevin - pick on him.

In the final chapter, Chiron is beefed up, wears a grill in his mouth and has become a drug dealer in Atlanta, driving around a car with a crown once owned by Juan on his car's dashboard. He receives a phone call from his mother, who wants him to come home so that she can offer him a peace treaty, but also gets one from Kevin, who has, in the decade since they've last seen each other, done a prison stint, but also fathered a child and, now, works as a cook at a restaurant. The two men meet up at Kevin's diner, which leads to the film's much talked about finale, which includes a poignant conversation and what could possibly be viewed as a breakthrough for Chiron.

"Who is you?" is a question that is repeated twice during the course of the film, first by Chiron's mother to Juan after he drops him off at home for the first time and then later directed to adult Chiron by Kevin. So, as I'd mentioned, while the fact that Chiron is gay, black, shy and bullied, none of these attributes exactly drive the film's narrative, but rather enhance its theme of identity and how signature moments during the course of our lives result in defining our characters.

In terms of story, "Moonlight" follows a time honored formula - although it's far from formulaic - but there's a lot to unpack thematically. Considering that Jenkins had previously only made one other feature eight years ago, it's surprising how much depth and richness there is to be found here. The performances - from all three actors portraying Chiron and Kevin to Harris, Monae and Ali - are all tremendous, the visuals luminous (the picture's title is fitting, considering how the use of moonlight often bathes the actors) and the writing superb. And the film's music - which includes everything from Boris Gardiner and Barbara Lewis to mid-1990s Goodie Mob - is used expertly to comment on the action.

This is easily one of the year's best films, the rare breakout film that lives up to the hype. And what makes it so powerful is how it takes so many complex themes - from sexuality and race to masculinity and a Bildungsroman plot - and deftly weaves together all the various threads. While watching the film, there's no question that you're in the hands of a filmmaker with significant talent and confidence. "Moonlight" positively glows.

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