Moonlight (2016)

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I don’t think there is anything that is simultaneously beneficial and harmful to a film than hype. There are some films that are just hyped up so much and given the status of being essential viewings right from the beginning, and usually many people do enjoy the film, but many others find themselves somewhat disappointed, because it was seen as being this great, towering masterpiece, when it was actually not necessarily bad, but not worthy of the hype. I cannot begin to tell you how much I wanted to be completely blown away by Moonlight – it is perhaps the most acclaimed film of the year, and I was so desperately hoping that I would adore it with every fiber of my being. Yet, I left this film slightly disappointed. Not to say that this film isn’t a great film – it is an absolutely magnificent film – but rather, it just is the victim of overly enthusiastic hype, and honestly, it would be very difficult for any film to live up to the hype that Moonlight received. However, this review isn’t going to be about all the ways Moonlight disappointed me (because it is still an amazing film), and at least Moonlight is a far better film than the last film that received over-the-top hype and ended up leaving me cold, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.

Moonlight is an odyssey through the life of Chiron through different stages of his life – as a young boy (Alex Hibbert) who is the victim of isolated bullying, as a sexually confused teenager (Ashton Sanders) and as a drug-dealing adult (Trevante Rhodes) struggling to come to terms with the fact that his life could’ve been far different. Throughout the film, Chiron encounters a variety of individuals who become very important in his life, such as his mother, Paula (Naomi Harris) who is a drug-taking, abusive and absent parent who still wants her son in her life, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who is the father-figure Chiron needed in his life and ends up shaping his future, and Kevin (André Holland), the grown-up former best-friend of Chiron who was the very reason Chiron himself started to doubt his own sexuality. The film is a journey through these three stages of life, and are a simple snapshot of periods where one individual, nothing necessarily extraordinary about him, comes to terms with who he is, and how those around us shape our futures by their negative or positive influences on our lives.

Here is one problem I have with the publicity about Moonlight – not necessarily the publicity that comes from the film itself, but rather from some of those who comment on the film itself, calling it either “that gay film” or “that black film”, or worse “that gay black film” (believe it or not, I’ve seen quite a few people call Moonlight one of these, if not worse) – Moonlight is not a film that is necessarily about any of those things, but rather, it is an exploration of one person and his life, and how he grows up in an environment unfriendly towards his own values and personality.

The subject of homosexuality and race is present throughout this film, and while Moonlight should be commended for how it displays these topics (especially in the current world, where acceptance is becoming very important, but is happening far too slowly), it doesn’t necessarily have the agenda to showcase the plight of the entire communities that the protagonist finds himself a part of. It is not a statement on the homophobic tendencies of society, nor does it show any message about enveloping the entirety of race-relations in America. It is just a simple story about one person, going from boy to man, with these themes as significant factors in his growth.

The reason I mention this is because Moonlight‘s tackling of these subjects in such an intimate and powerful way, showing it through an individual rather than as overarching statements about society, is perhaps its strongest element. Much like Boyhood just shows one boy’s growth, Moonlight shows the evolution of one individual. It is a personal, intimate journey through the life of one person, and while many may not be able to relate to it, everyone should be able to appreciate the emotionally resonant themes of dealing with our own crises and issues, normally the ones that come from those around us.

The cast of Moonlight is brimming with talent. Just looking at the three actors who play Chiron, we already are able to see the brilliance of this film. All three performers are different enough to show us the evolution of Chiron, but find the common thread that unites them all and shows us that this is the same character throughout the film, just changed from his external circumstances and his internal conflicts. Alex Hibbert is wonderful, and while much of the first chapter of Moonlight concentrates on how he encounter Juan, Hibbert still gives the role exactly what it needs. His performance may not be the best in the film, but it is certainly effective at showing us the youthful naivety that many go through at a young age.

Ashton Sanders is probably the best out of the three performers, as he captures the quiet angst of the teenage years perfectly. Almost entirely silent, but with a fiery rage of confusion burning within, Sanders commits to the role perfectly and brings it wonderfully to life. Finally, Trevante Rhodes ends off the film with his grown-up, drug-dealing version of Chiron, and while Hibbert brought childish naivety, and Sanders teen angst, Rhodes brings a sense of sensitivity and regret. Moonlight is a superb film particularly because of how it deals with the sense of regret that many of us feel, but can’t do anything about it, because if our society shapes us in a certain way, it is very difficult to change our entire lives easily. All three actors deserve special commendations for their exquisite performances here.

Among the supporting cast, standouts are Naomie Harris, who is utterly heartbreaking (if not slightly underused) as Paula, the drug-addict mother who wants to love her son, but fails to do so as she puts her own needs ahead of him. Mahershala Ali is becoming a tremendous character actor, and with his performance here as Juan, he brings humanity to a simple drug dealer who has a soft spot for the young Chiron. A part of me just kept wishing this entire film concentrated on Ali and Hibbert only, because while I understand the concept behind this film, the first chapter was probably my favourite only because Ali and Hibbert’s arc is just wonderful, and I kept hoping that the film would linger on this chapter a little bit more. André Holland also gives a quietely powerhouse performance as Kevin, Chiron’s former best friend who has made bad decisions of his own and seeks out that connection he used to have many years ago. Holland is tremendous, and brings a different kind of energy to this film, and I wish we were able to see more of him. Kevin is perhaps the most interesting character in the film, and I truly believe that this film could’ve been all about Kevin and his experiences growing up instead of Chiron and still have been a very moving film.

Moonlight is a superb film. The cinematography is absolutely stunning (I don’t think there is a better photographed film this year), and the score is incredible (particularly the song “The Middle of the World”, which is just a masterpiece of music composition). The performances are moving, and the film itself is amazing in so many ways. It is definitely amongst this year’s best films, and I truly believe that Moonlight will be remembered for years to come, and it is an important film for two reasons – it is an independent film in every sense of the word, and we need to support our independent filmmakers, or else we won’t be able to get amazing films like this. The second reason is because whether or not one can relate to the themes of this film, we should all be able to take the message of Moonlight and live our lives honestly, kindly and in a way that we don’t regret the decisions we made. Moonlight is a wonderful film, and I urge everyone to see it. It really is worth it.

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