Film, Reviews, Screen Moonlight movie review: an extraordinary film about the ordinary By Luke Buckmaster | January 25, 2017 | ★★★★★ ★★★★★ There’s a scene early in writer/director Barry Jenkins’ magnificent give-him-the-Oscar-now-and-throw-in-a-Nobel-Peace-Prize-while-you’re-at-it drama Moonlight that takes place at a Miami beach. The camera bobs up and down as the protagonist, a young boy named Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is held by a large adult man beneath a pale blue sky with fluffy white clouds. Chiron is being taught to swim, but the scene looks more like a baptism. Juan (Mahershala Ali) has one hand tenderly cradling the back of the child’s neck as he floats horizontally. The way the frame is periodically consumed by waves of the water, bits of it drifting in and out of focus, feels a little like the scene is being told from the perspective of somebody remembering it – recalling key emotions but missing the details. Water is often a symbol of rebirth and transformation. Jenkins uses it as a motif, returning to it on several occasions in his eight-time Oscar-nominated film, most notably during Chiron’s his first sexual experience (shared with another boy) which takes place on the sand. The memory of that early scene lingers large as the narrative progresses along linear but unconventional lines, divided into three distinct time periods in the protagonist’s life. The first jump into the future takes us to teenage Chiron (now Ashton Sanders) who, like his younger self, is quiet, mild-mannered and bullied at school. There is some horror, some bewilderment, some wonder in the way his young eyes soak up the world, a degree of leeriness drawn from interactions with his mother Paula (a terrific, heart-piercing, highly strung Naomie Harris). Their relationship has more than a little tough-and-rumble, on account of her being a crack addict. For a little while Juan becomes a father-like figure, even if he’s the one selling mum her gear. The acting is faultless. Moonlight is an immaculately cast and performed film. The second jump forward reveals a steeled, adult, drug-dealing, beefed-ed Chiron (former athlete Trevante Rhodes) – the sort of emotionally reserved, borderline benumbed person who seems the logical result of a kid knocked around too many times. He reconnects with Kevin (André Holland), the same boy he shared a sexual encounter with on the beach, in scenes reminiscent of one of Richard Linklater’s Sunset/Sunrise/Midnight movies. There’s talking, dining and coming to terms with how sand has moved through the hourglass. The acting in this scene and others is faultless; Moonlight an immaculately cast and performed film. James Stewart once described cinema as “pieces of time”. In Moonlight the biggest chunks are off-screen, in between jumps in the narrative, but the smallest are the most profound. Often – like the beach/baptism scene – they can be distilled into singular images that evoke location in striking ways. A reminder that stories belong in places, and places have stories. This great, big-hearted, big-thinking film reminded me of the 1967 experimental documentary Portrait of Jason, which is equal parts unassuming and bat shit crazy. In it a solicitous loose-lipped raconteur – charming and mysterious, impenetrable – yaks to the camera, with nobody else the filmmaker ever cuts to, for 105 consecutive minutes. Drinking, smoking, spinning yarns. The subject is also African American and gay, but its contrasts rather than its similarities brought the film to mind: particularly the impact of spoken word. In Portrait of Jason there is endless chitchat but scant sense of the real person behind the motormouth; in Moonlight there is so little talk (from Chiron) but such a strong construction of character. The cinematography by James Laxton (Tusk, Yoga Hosers) is audaciously good. It’s the best kind of handheld camera work in the sense small random movements convey vitality: a feeling the frame is alive and no two shots could possibly be the same. In the first scene, based outside a crack house, Laxton’s lens glides around in half circles and loops like a choreographed dance. The beginning of a technically brilliant movie. Moonlight has the aura of a small film people discover and never forget. One is tempted to apply descriptions such as “meditative” and “visual poetry” to define the look and feel of Moonlight. How the director conveys a film that seems to exist beneath a cloud, next to a lamppost, and punchdrunk in the, well, moonlight. Those labels feel too hoity-toity for a work that marries psychology of character and aesthetic so unpretentiously, and with such a streetwise vibe about it. On the other hand, winning the Academy Award for Best Picture (for which it is nominated) would almost feel too generic an accolade for such a special work, as if the golden statuette would in some way homogenise the achievement. Moonlight has the aura of a small film people discover and never forget. A coming of age story and a seeming contradiction: an extraordinary film about the ordinary. Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Luke Buckmaster Luke Buckmaster is film critic and writer for Daily Review, and contributes commentary to a range of Australian publications.