The Watchers

The Watchers

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Review: Moonlight (UK Cert 15)

A touching, tender, coming-of-age story, Moonlight tells the story of a young black man growing up in an impoverished neighbourhood in Miami.

A timid, meek boy, neglected by his drug addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris), Chiron (Alex Hibbert) finds an unlikely mentor and father figure in local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Later, as a teenager, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) comes to terms with his sexuality after an emotionally charged encounter with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). Ten years later, a now adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) and Kevin (Andre Holland) meet again as adults to discuss the past.

It's based on an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue (which is also a line in the film). McCraney receives a story credit whilst director Barry Jenkins is also credited as screenwriter. The film is structured much like a three-act play with each section focusing on a different part of Chiron's life. 

The three actors playing Chiron- Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes- all have different challenges but all three are superb. Hibbert's innocence and quietness (he hardly speaks in the first ten minutes of the film) is a lovely complement to Sanders' sensitivity and Rhodes' laconic toughness. As the teenage Chiron, Sanders probably has the most meaty part of the film (the scenes of bullying are tough to watch and the encounter between Chiron and Kevin on the beach is breathtakingly erotic without being explicit) but there's a raw honesty in all three actors which really helps the audience get behind the character.  

Ali and Harris have been the actors most recognised for their roles, and with good reason. Ali gives a real warmth to his performance as Juan. Eschewing traditional drug-dealer stereotypes, his almost paternal care for the young Chiron is touching (none more so in the scene where he teaches Chiron to swim). He's also refreshingly progressive- explaining to Chiron that a homophobic slur is 'used to make gay people feel bad', rather than reinforcing it. But at the end of the day, he is no saint and is complicit in Paula's drug use. The film does lose a certain amount of warmth after Juan's departure (he only appears in the first section). However, Janelle Monae proves that her strong supporting turn in Hidden Figures isn't a one-off as she gives a warm and nurturing performance as Juan's girlfriend Teresa (who provides security for Chiron as a child and teenager).

Harris' performance will stay with you long after the film has ended. Paula is selfish, emotionally abusive, neglectful; by rights, you should hate her. But rather than hatred, I felt a strange kind of sympathy for- or maybe empathy with- her (especially in the last third of the film, when the now adult Chiron visits her in a rehabilitation centre). She is the only actress who appears in all three sections of the film and she gives an authentic and emotionally honest performance.

Technically, it's pretty good (although some of the camera-work is a little jolty). It doesn't overdo any of the visual metaphors which is good and the film stays mostly to the right side of pretentious. The score by Nicholas Britell is also worth a mention as it's sublime.

Whilst I don't agree with the ghettoisation of film (labelling it 'a black film' or 'a gay film'; film's film and that's that as far as I'm concerned), Moonlight neatly defies easy categorisation and provides an honest and powerful experience.

Rating: 4 out of 5


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