Sunday, October 23, 2016

'Moonlight' review

Note: This review is a re-publication of my review from the Toronto International Film Festival. Moonlight is in limited release now, and will expand nationwide in November.

It feels like nobody knew about Moonlight until a month ago. There had been whispers among some critics who got the chance to see it early, but the indie film was a relatively unknown quantity until A24 released the first trailer. Hypnotic, mysterious, and stunningly gorgeous, the preview for Barry Jenkins' second feature (and the first film developed in-house at A24) unleashed a wave of anticipation that hasn't stopped ever since. I had never heard of Jenkins before, nor had I seen his first film, Medicine for Melancholy (something that I definitely feel that I should rectify). But after watching that trailer, Moonlight instantly became one of the films that I simply couldn't miss at the Toronto International Film Festival. The buzz at the Telluride Film Festival (where Jenkins had been a volunteer for years) was deafening, and as Saturday night approached at TIFF, there was a feeling in the air that is almost indescribable. As the Winter Garden Theatre filled up with movie fans, stars, and industry insiders on a rainy night in Toronto, the room was electric. We knew that we were about to witness something special.


I throw around the word "masterpiece" quite often on this site, probably more than I should. In fact, I would go as far as to say that it's a bad habit of mine. Sometimes, if there's a film that I really love and enjoy, I'll call it a masterpiece just as a show of my support. Unfortunately, I believe there are times where I can get a bit overeager, deeming a movie to be a masterpiece without really considering all that means. In reality, that word has meaning. A masterpiece is what happens when all of the elements of film combine in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. It is not a common occurrence and something that I've realized that I need to take more seriously. Going into TIFF, I knew that I would see a lot of great films, but would I see any films that truly deserve such a meaningful title? If there was one, I figured it would be Moonlight. The film has been called a masterpiece by plenty of critics who have gotten the chance to see it, and thanks to its sterling reviews, this almost seems to be the general consensus.

And with good reason. This is an incredible piece of filmmaking. You will not be able to stop thinking about this movie- it has haunted my memory ever since I saw it. It is astonishing, it is heartbreaking, and yes, it is a full-blown masterpiece. But maybe most importantly, Moonlight is pure cinema. It is poetic and remarkably graceful, breathtakingly emotional without ever feeling manipulative. The storytelling is elegant and patient, but even more than that, the filmmaking on display is momentous. The performances are out-of-this-world, the cinematography is thrilling, the use of music is brilliant. Moonlight is a true piece of art, the rare perfect work that combines everything you want from a motion picture into one dazzling concoction. It's a vital, sensational, unforgettable movie, a film so essential and so terrific that it's difficult to put its genius into words. It's one of the best films I've seen in a very, very long time.


Based on the play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" by Tarell McCraney, Moonlight is the story of three decades in the life of Chiron. The story begins when Chiron is just a young boy (played by Alex R. Hibbert) growing up in a dangerous neighborhood in Miami. He's known mostly as "Little" and during his early days, he's befriended by a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who sees him as a lost soul in need of some help. Little's father is no longer around, and his mother (Naomie Harris) is a drug addict, so Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), take him under their wing. Time passes, and the young boy becomes a teenager who goes by his birth name of Chiron. As a teen, he's dealing with his newfound sexuality and the dangers of being a gay man in high school. And finally, the third chapter finds Chiron as an older man, known simply as Black (Trevante Rhodes). After a life-changing event, Chiron must come to terms with the course of his life and reunite with his past.

That's a pretty general synopsis of this movie, and to be quite honest, I wish I could be even more vague about the story Moonlight tells over the course of its 110 minute runtime. The less you know, the better. This is an entirely singular film experience, and I love the idea of somebody seeing it, having no idea what to expect, and being utterly blown away. You're going to hear plenty of people comparing Moonlight to other films (Richard Linklater's Boyhood chief among them), but I think that diminishes the unique power of Jenkins' triumph. Moonlight is a monumental achievement, a gorgeous, dreamlike portrait of the life of a beautiful, troubled soul. From the opening frame to the mesmerizing final shot, Moonlight is completely spellbinding. I cannot say enough good things about this movie.


It took Barry Jenkins eight years to make his sophomore feature after his acclaimed debut, but after seeing it, all I have to say is that I really, really hope that it won't take another eight for his third. With Moonlight, Jenkins proves himself to be a filmmaker of immense talent, a director with an uncommonly good visual eye and a knack for gentle, rhythmic storytelling. The film opens with Mahershala Ali's Juan parking his car on the side of the road (accompanied by a great musical cue), and when he gets out to meet a friend, the camera circles around the conversation for one single shot. It's such a dizzying, brilliant way to draw the audience into the movie, and Jenkins doesn't stop there. His work with the camera is impressive, but never gimmicky, fitting the mood of each shot with poise. Every frame feels absolutely essential, and it's amazing how well Jenkins nails the tone and feeling of each scene. He's a major talent, and if he doesn't get a Best Director nomination this year, there's no justice in the world.

Oh, and did I mention how beautiful this movie is? James Laxton worked as the cinematographer on TuskYoga Hosers, and Camp X-Ray- nothing that would indicate that he could deliver something as jaw-dropping as this. Moonlight is soaked in stunning colors and alluring visual contrasts, giving it the feeling of an exquisite painting. The entire film has a blue hue (which makes sense given the thematic connection), and the disparity between the grainy, brutal reality of Chiron's world and the calm, smooth world of Miami is amazing. It would be one thing if Moonlight was just a great film to look at, but it also has one of the most haunting scores in recent memory. If you've seen the trailer, you've heard it already. The aching pain of Nicholas Britell's score permeates every scene of Moonlight- through those mournful violin chords, you can hear the tragedy, feel the loss of love. Jenkins never abuses the brilliance of Britell's score, nor does he emphasize it during the most intense moments. Instead, it underscores the entire work, only adding to the artistry of the film.


The cast of Moonlight is equally outstanding, and they deliver such raw, nuanced, emotionally resonant performances that I have to imagine awards recognition is in their future. Chiron's evolution is the main arc, and we're treated to three stellar performances that capture his personality and soul at different times in his life. Alex Hibbert plays the young Little, and he's dynamic and captivating, often without ever saying a word. As the quiet, often terrified Little, Hibbert is able to convey so much pain and confusion with just a look. There's an unusual amount of reflection and contemplation in Hibbert's performance, and it's without a doubt one of the most stellar child actor turns in recent memory. Once Hibbert exits the story, Ashton Sanders takes his place as the older Chiron, amplifying his quiet reserve in a new way. Sanders captures Chiron at a point in his life where so much tragedy has already occurred, and there are no easy answers to the big questions that haunt his life. Like Hibbert's Little, you can feel the sadness and anger and turmoil in Sanders' performance, and I was simply blown away.

As Moonlight's third act arrives, Trevante Rhodes takes over the role of Chiron. And even after two incredibly impressive performances from two unusually terrific young actors, Rhodes steals the show. He's the breakout star of the movie, and if he isn't immediately scooped up by studios all over Hollywood, I'll be shocked. Rhodes represents Chiron at a point where he has internalized all of his conflict. He no longer wears his pain on his face- it's buried deep inside, underneath an iron clad exterior. So when Rhodes eventually breaks down, it's all the more wrenching to watch. It's sad to see Chiron transform into something that he knows he isn't, but Rhodes uses that to his advantage as the emotional moments arrive. The final third of Moonlight is probably the most impressive display of cinema I've seen this year so far, and Rhodes takes everything that McCraney and Jenkins give him and creates something sensational.


Moonlight is Chiron's story, but it's also the story of the people who shaped who he becomes as a man. There are so many excellent supporting roles in this film, and each member of the cast knocks it out of the park. Mahershala Ali could gain some serious traction for his role as Juan, the drug dealer who becomes a father figure for Chiron. Ali is soft-spoken and kind, a man devoted to the life of this young boy even though his profession is less than noble. His girlfriend is played by Janelle Monae, the pop star who is poised to have a breakout year with her role here and in Theo Melfi's Hidden Figures. Monae is the mother that Chiron really needs, and her tender, no-nonsense love is beautiful to watch. Naomie Harris is most likely to gain significant Oscar attention for her turn as Paula, Chiron's drug-addled mother. Harris is able to capture the tragedy of a woman trapped by her addiction, and although she's never a major part of the film, she's enthralling to watch. And finally, I was incredibly impressed by Andre Holland, who plays a character dealing with his impact on Chiron later in life. Holland's charisma and warmth shines through, and I would love to see him get more roles along with his co-stars.

The cast and crew behind Moonlight are invaluable to the success of the film. But the magic lies with the script, written by Jenkins and based off McCraney's play (who I imagine had quite a bit to do with the adaptation). This is simply a miraculous story, structured, written, and told with extraordinary skill. Jenkins' decision to tell the story in three definitive acts was an act of genius, and the way that the movie builds to an emotional payoff is devastating. Even Boyhood can't compare to Jenkins' treatment of the trials and tribulations of life, handled so delicately as the film explores the legacy of pain that can start in our youth. The tagline for Moonlight says "This is the story of a lifetime." It lives up to the title. It's the story of a young man coming to terms with who he is, who he loves, and the people and community who created him. And if it doesn't take your breath away, nothing will.

Movies don't get much better than Moonlight, an ephemeral, beautiful portrait of a life marked by love, loss, and tragedy. Any fan of film needs to see this movie, and I can't imagine anyone walking away disappointed. We don't see nearly enough films about the African-American experience, so it's a blessing that we have artists like Jenkins and McCraney to tell the stories that have been pushed to the side for too long. With Moonlight, Jenkins has crafted a universally appealing masterwork, a film that will be remembered for years to come. What else can I say? Just see it.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A+                                             (10/10)

Images courtesy of A24

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