Film, Reviews, Screen

Moonlight movie review: an extraordinary film about the ordinary

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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.

13 responses to “Moonlight movie review: an extraordinary film about the ordinary

  1. I saw part of this film yesterday, with two friends. We left an hour before the finish – something I have only ever done twice in my life!

    I found the film to be almost unwatchable. For the opening scenes, you need subtitles, or to be fluent in Ebonics. The conversation is often incomprehensible. The hand-held camera work is annoyingly dizzying, and far too intrusive. Yes, parts of the cinematography are beautiful, but this is not nearly enough to hold the interest of the viewer. It is drawn out, unpleasant in the extreme and ultimately boring.

    Sorry, Luke, but we cannot agree on this one. As for the Academy Award for best picture – LION hands down!

  2. Unmoved by La La Land – so bland; Lion needed an outsider not so involved in the story to undertake some judicious editing; won’t forget Moonlight – for all the right resons. Loved the film!

  3. The cinematography is artful and the performances impeccable, but the transitions in age are clunky, unlike the seamless effect in ‘Boyhood’. The final chapter is anticlimactic and banal. A combination of poor elocution and novel, deep-south gangster linguistics also makes too many of the subtleties incomprehensible. There is a charm to this good-hearted African American story, however it’s too long and plotless to be compelling viewing. As irrelevant and mediocre as La La Land for mine.

    1. I totally agree with your statement the age transition especially the chapter “Black” became very sluggish and boring; the film had message but no plot causing it to seem rather lengthy and less captivating like the beginning, seeming to have the same old lesson and teaches just with excellent camera work and a almost flawless soundtrack. I wasn’t able to relate to these characters and somehow or another (probably because of great acting) found them a little enjoyable but it still screamed mediocre after my first viewing and absolutely irrelevant after my second; to me it wasn’t a coming of age film and left me wanting answers (especially at the end), trying to figure out how it had gotten critically acclaim other than the fact the main character was a black male and homosexual and therefore had overall sympathy. It takes pleasure and trying to make stereotypes seem very emotional and captivating with a hint of true instead of trying to strike them down.

  4. All I can say to Miriam is to pack her bags and go to Trumperica where she would, unfortunately, feel at home. Open your mind and your heart and you just might be able to hear what this unique movie is saying.

  5. As an Australian, having just watched the film, the language was totally incomprehensible. There were only a few words – eg blue or black, mother saying I love you etc. Sub titles would have made the film enjoyable -as i twas, it left the audience wondering what it was all about…

  6. To s j, be it on your hands. I was stunned by the acting but Hey bro where were the subtitles to make this film understandable. How it made Best Film is a mystery?
    Marian French

  7. Moonlight wasn’t really that great of a movie to me it was mediocre with great actors and actresses, Marershala Ali did great as well as Asthon Sanders and Noami Harris with the outstanding performance by Andre Holland; making their characters turn out bright and bold. Moonlight is just another LGBT Drama film with more emotional and the character is a male who is gay and black nothing more nothing less; although there were some parts I thought were beautiful and that did catch my attention the middle of the world/ forgiveness scenes they were well acted and really served a purpose but like Lion near the end or as the characters became adults the films began to get sluggish because of lack of character development and the lengthy time making them a bit boring. Also not to sound mean but Moonlight may have been uncomfortable to watch for straight viewers especially with Chiron and Kevin’s sexual encounter (beach scene), the film really has no plot and its message has been told over and over again; plus its a film with all black people in it being shown to white audiences still basing things off stereotypes, although excellent cinematography it gets a bit annoying it doesn’t change how it has similarities to Boyhood even though better than La La Land by a landslide.

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