XXY Reviews: Moonlight by Barry Jenkins
XXY Reviews: Moonlight by Barry Jenkins
The beauty of Moonlight lies in its stillness. If director Barry Jenkins teaches us anything with this film, it is to pay attention to the minutiae. This is a tender portrayal of a young boy’s upbringing. And yet it is so much more. It is an urgent commentary on sexuality and black lives, putting actors like Mahershala Ali in the spotlight they deserve.
Drama as we know it began and ended with the Oscars mishap: this event in itself is food for thought. But was Moonlight a worthy winner of Best Picture against a critical hit like La La Land? And have both films been equally overhyped? Whilst you can’t deny Moonlight’s potency, I couldn’t help but feel we get too zealous at this time of year. Is it right place, right time? Or is this film genuinely deserving of its merit?
Moonlight follows the story of one boy’s life: first as Little, then as Chiron, and finally as Black. These three chapters are portrayed by different actors, each lending a delicate ear to the character’s struggles. Cinematographer James Laxton nicely sets the scene here. Using an anamorphic lens that takes the film widescreen, he mirrors the different stages of Little’s life and the uncertainty he faces.
One moment we follow Little and a friend running across a field in the heat of the day. They’re young and free; limbs flailing on the grass. The next, he is watching his drug-addict mother scream at him in a dark, empty room. The camera slowly zooms in on her as pink tones radiate from the background. It is ghostly and surreal, serving as a stark contrast to the sun-drenched Miami setting. In this way, Jenkins bucks the trend of what you might expect from a film of this genre. This is no ordinary naturalism. He is telling his own story, and this stylised juxtaposition reminds us to pay attention.
Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders as Little and his older self, Chiron, were incredibly convincing as the same character; both in looks and demeanour. Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae were also brilliantly cast as the strangers Little takes refuge with. In one touching moment, he asks them something that reveals how deeply he is bullied at school. The camera lingers on Ali as Juan here when it dawns on him how much his own drug dealing impacts this young boy’s life. In this way, it’s nice to see Jenkins allowing such vulnerability from his characters.
The heart of the story lies in the final scene when Trevante Rhodes as Black, admits to his former flame (spoiler alert) that he is the only man he has ever been intimate with. Black might look like a man you wouldn’t want to cross. But this is the beauty of it. There is so much more under the surface. While watching their embrace, we are left completely captivated, wondering what exactly they are feeling and where this relationship will take them.
The film, however, does have its pitfalls. I couldn’t quite get on board with Naomie Harris as Little’s mother; her character straying the closest to a cliché. This is why Ali’s role is so refreshing. We view his character more as a father figure to Little, than as the archetypal drug dealer.
While Moonlight also deserved its position in the Oscars race, you have to admit the Best Picture mix up sent everyone into a slight frenzy. Those who originally rooted for films like La La Land suddenly jumped ship, afraid of liking a film that didn’t address as many important issues. It was of course a worthy winner. But I can’t help thinking of so many other brilliant films that lag behind simply because of the time of year they are released.
Moonlight is as much about wider social issues as it is the little things in life. Seemingly inconsequential matters like a young boy running himself a bath, have a huge effect on us. And Jenkins carefully weaves these moments together without ever really rooting the film in a particular structure. The movie is driven by its characters, not by a narrative. There are unanswered questions and relationships we want to explore further, but Jenkins makes no apologies for this. When you have an important story to tell, a stellar cast, and beautiful images, you can afford not to.
Written by Georgina Grier,
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