Starring Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome. Directed by Barry Jenkins.
In a previous review for an awards contender we called one film “the first perfect film of 2017”. Here we have the second.
There is nothing in Barry Jenkins sensational Moonlight that is worth criticism, it’s all worthy of praise. But to give it it’s due we’re going to break it down easily.
First of all the performances are brilliant. The film follows a young gay black man called Chiron at three points in his life, when he goes by different names, and each actor playing the stages of his life is sensational. First, Alex Hibbert is a confident young performer who plays Chiron/“Little” with young intensity that really hasn’t been seen on screen before. We’re being treated in recent times to some fine performances by young actors (Jacob Tremblay, Neel Sethi, Quvenzhane Wallis) but his is by far one of the best. Though he says relatively little there is something inherently endearing about the quiet little kid who has stuff going on.
In the second part, Ashton Sanders fills the role of the now teenage Chiron, bullied and put upon this section features some of the toughest scenes, including one that might feel real to people grappling with their own sexuality. Sanders again says little, but does well when he isn’t talking, his eyes roam the screen like an animal ready to pounce and when he does it’s affecting.
Finally Trevante Rhodes plays adult Chiron, now going by Black, the adult version of the character, who brings emotional weight to the final third of the film. It’s through him that we see what the weight of all these actions are, and really it was him who was most deserving of the Oscar win.
Around those three are some truly spellbinding performances, obviously Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris are winning rave reviews (and an Oscar for Ali), but also the work for jangle Monae, and Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome and Jaden Piner as Chiron’s friend Kevin.
Jenkins channels the spirit of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in it’s simple meditation on growing up and life, but moreover it’s a touching portrait of someone living life and trying to manage. Each segment has it’s own style and it’s own feel but it all adds up to a single piece. It’s not a series of events, it’s a long look at how the sum of all events can shape a life, how things can repeat in various ways.
There’s really no praise high enough to sell this film, and it was always the clear front runner for Best Picture. In it’s depiction of race, and the struggles with sexual identity and drug addiction, there is nothing exploitative about it, there is nothing that feels tacky and sensational. It’s a portrait of three demensions.
As the film progresses it becomes clear that what Black has now become is a reflection of all those around him, a key line is “I rebuilt myself from the ground up”, showing that sticks and stones may break your bones but words will change a person.
If there is one scene that is the standout then it’s the one near the beginning in which a young Chiron asks Ali’s Juan what a faggot is, this moment of acceptance and of explanation explains that the f word is to the LGBT community what the N word is to the black community. It’s a beautifully observed moment where the three people on screen are quiet restrained and devastating.
Paul Klein is a Film Studies Graduate from London, former writer at The Metropolist.