Writer: Barry Jenkins (screenplay), Tarell Alvin McCraney (story)
Cast: Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome
Running time: 111mins
What’s the story: The life of Chiron, a black man from a rough area of 1980s Miami, is charted through three key stages of his life, from childhood to teenage years and full adulthood.
What’s the verdict: Moonlight and La La Land could not be more different. Moonlight is a coming-of-age story about the struggles of a young black man growing up ostracised and gay and saddled with an abusive crack-addicted mother in a deprived area of Miami. La La Land is a frothy, musical confection about an actress and jazz musician chasing their dreams and each other.
La La Land is in the clouds. Moonlight is on the mean streets.
Yet, what they have in common is *gasp* a case of critical overpraise. Both are well-crafted examples of moviemaking from exciting directors with strong artistic vision. But, neither ignites that intellectual and emotional touch paper that makes an impressive film truly outstanding.
But, it seems churlish to pick at a film simply because it has received inordinate accolades. Writer/director Barry Jenkins has delivered an engrossing and ambitious study of a boy’s journey to troubled manhood.
Moonlight evokes both the gay cinema of the 1990s and the earlier French New Wave, particularly Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Donel series of films that charted the life of one character from difficult adolescence through to later years.
Indeed, the final shot seems a direct quote from the closing moment of Truffaut’s debut The 400 Blows, and is equally open to multiple interpretations.
Divided into three parts, each section is titled after the lead character’s most commonly referred to name at that point in his life – Little, Chiron, Black. And through each iteration more information is revealed about his (hidden and open) identities, circumstances, fortunes and (mostly) misfortunes. Persecution at school, a hellish home life dominated by his addict mother (fiercely brought to life by Naomie Harris in limited screen time) and touching moments of respite.
This respite comes firstly from drug dealer Juan (Ali, picking up multiple awards for his performance) and his girlfriend Teresa (Monae); Juan imparting life lessons and paternal tenderness, and in a beautifully shot swimming lesson on the Miami coast, baptising Little into the next stage of his life.
Later, Black seeks solace and comfort in old flame Kevin (Jerome and Holland). But, Jenkins adds bold complications to both relationships: Juan supplies the crack on which Little’s mum is hooked and Kevin is responsible for a betrayal we won’t reveal here, but ties into key themes of peer pressure and betrayal, both of which are sensitively handled.
Violence erupts in brief bursts, the verbal as painful to watch as the physical, particularly Harris’s scenes as she alternates between obsequious and obscene with her son dependent on his willingness to offer up drug money.
Moonlight’s real triumph is in the development of one character across three actors. Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes, who play the youngest to the eldest incarnations of Chiron, never met while filming yet convincingly depict a character maturing across a decade and a half of his life.
Jenkins directs with a restless, handheld camera style for the first two sections, conveying Chiron’s nervous tension and nomadic existence within his small section of Miami. Visually, the third section is more elegantly composed and locked off as Black finds some control in his life.
Not a masterpiece then, but exciting, intelligent filmmaking from bold new talents.
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