Review: Moonlight Deserves the Spotlight

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If I’m being honest, it takes very little to sell me on a film. Usually a simple trailer will do, especially for smaller indie films such as this, which often results in me being asked, “Well, what’s it about?” I rarely know, but the fact is I want to find out, and that’s all that matters. In a world where massive blockbusters get released on a monthly basis, and bombastic trailers tell audiences the entire story before they watch the movie, sometimes I need a little mystery. Whether that’s The Edge of Seventeen, The Lobster, or in this case, Moonlight, going in blind is the only way.

Occasionally, however, these movies receive massive praise, and it’s hard to escape it. In a time full of knee-jerk reactions and second-to-second updates, going in blind to a smaller film that’s gaining some traction can be difficult. Worse yet, what if simply being exposed to the praise second-hand affects your expectations? Did you make them unreachable, or was your experience simply not in-line with the status quo? You’ll never know the answer, but what I can tell you is this: the praise for Moonlight is no hyperbole. This is a film that will touch on your deepest emotional level, leaving you scarred as the credits begin to roll.

Caution: Minor Spoilers Ahead

Barry Jenkins’ sophomore effort relies on, relishes in, and succeeds because of its subtlety. Like 2014’s Boyhood, it is less about the overall narrative and more about the experience. Jenkins aims to evoke an emotional response based on, if not personal experience, then perhaps one of the most misunderstood human emotions: pity, which too often has a negative connotation. To pity this character is not to think they are lesser, but to wholly grasp the weight of his experience, feel regret and sadness at his misfortune, and wish for a clear answer to his struggle. Unfortunately, one does not exist.

Because for Chiron, his situation is as dire as they come. In fact, Moonlight is so devoid of any sense of hope that whenever our lead character finds himself just a small moment of reprieve, you never allow yourself the opportunity to feel excited or happy for him, because there’s absolutely no way his brief moment of happiness can overpower his oppressively negative environment. Then just as you guessed, that switch is flipped again, but it’s hard to take pride in the fact that you “outsmarted” the film. No, instead it feels more like a punch to the gut, and the wall you’ve built in your mind slowly begins to crack.

There’s an element of Moonlight that doesn’t quite click until the very end: the film lacks a traditional title screen. It isn’t until we finish that final shot that the word “Moonlight” flashes in front of you, right before the credits start rolling. And you know that wall that’s been slowly deteriorating? That’s when it crumbles. That was the moment where everything came into perspective and the weight of Chiron’s life hit me and shattered the false idea that I was somehow holding myself together, because I wasn’t. Doing so is almost impossible here.

But who is Chiron? Well, Chiron is a few different people, depending on the point in the film. While Moonlight may borrow the boy-to-man narrative experience from Boyhood, it takes its narrative structure from films like The Place Beyond the Pines, separating its story into three distinct parts: Little (Chiron as a child), Black (Chiron as a teenager), and Chiron (an adult). Like Derek Cianfrance’s second film, each act builds off of those that preceded it, showing how we change as humans, and how the company we keep changes as well. And yet, even through all those years, it’s quite clear our lead is still that little boy we find in the beginning of the film.

Okay, but who is Chiron? Again, he is more than one man, as his environment forces him to mold his life in order to survive. At his core, he is a young African American boy scared, neglected, and confused. He fears for his life, he’s neglected by his mother, and confused about his sexuality. But unlike other films, his sexuality never becomes a crutch, and Jenkins never waves it around like a banner. It’s simply who he is, or rather, it’s the part of him he’s been forced to hide. Because in this hyper-masculine environment, being different is being a target.

After being subjected to ridicule, one begins to wonder who you can put your trust in, which makes it immediately clear why Chiron keeps to himself; why he’s an introvert. He’s not acting this way because he wants to, he’s doing it because he has to, and the further you get in the film, the more you realize this. Yet Jenkins makes it a point to paint this as a simple hypothetical, at least in the beginning. A child simply asking a question because he’s heard a word used by his tormentors. Chiron just wants to try and understand why he feels so different from those around him.

“What’s a faggot?”

“It’s a word used to make gay people feel bad. You can be gay, but you don’t let no one call you no faggot.”

“How do I know?”

“You just do. You don’t gotta know right now. Not yet.”

Who do you turn to when your back’s against the wall? Well for Little Chiron, because you don’t have a father figure, you turn to Juan, the neighborhood drug dealer. Juan takes him under his wing not to get him in the game, but to give him a safe haven. Not to be his father, but to give him an environment where he doesn’t feel the need to cry all of the time, where he feels accepted, and that’s infinitely more important for a child in his situation. He’s not looking for guidance, he just wants some relief from the overwhelming suffocation.

And all of these complex emotions are transmitted through very little dialogue. Chiron doesn’t talk much and Juan and Teresa (his partner) don’t try to make him. If he feels the need to get something off of his chest, they welcome it. If he wants to sit at the table and eat in silence, they let him. They may not be living his life, but they understand the gravity of what he’s going through, and the fact that he’s in a fragile position, so just giving him a little space could be the difference between life and death.

It feels like I’m walking an incredibly thin line talking about this film, because since the narrative is so sparse, it can be very ease to give something away, which I would hate to do. Also, because the film is so nuanced, it can be easy to get carried away talking about specific scenes that say so much while simultaneously saying very little. Moonlight has this great ability to not waste a single shot because everything is layered with undertones and a sense of storytelling and narrative progression that goes beyond the spoken word. It makes every scene feel important and essential to the experience, which isn’t an easy feat.

Of course, this wouldn’t be possible without the actors in place, and though they are few in number, together they created one of the most engrossing films of the year. Even down to Alex Hibbert, who plays Little, everyone involved seemed to truly understand who these characters were and what they needed to bring to the table. The stunning Janelle Monáe played the tender, but stern Teresa without so much as flinching, reminding me of so many caregivers and mothers I’ve met throughout my life even though she isn’t one herself.

Ashton Sanders, who plays Chiron in his teenage years, gives off so much conflicted energy it’s almost unbelievable. He loves and feels obligated to Paula (Naomie Harris) for the fact that she’s his mother, yet despises her for who she is, and then feels guilty for wanting nothing to do with her. It’s the result of a society that forces us to love our family members even if they are toxic and detrimental to our well-being. Then there’s Mahershala Ali (Juan) who has numerous scenes with Little that test your willpower, incessantly chipping away at the aforementioned wall.

The cherry on top? The bow that ties it all together? That would be the score from Nicholas Britell, which is as dark and oppressive as the footage it accompanies. There are these haunting string and piano arrangements during certain points of the film that fill the scene was so much tension I thought the movie was going to implode on itself and burst at the seams. But at the same time, it’s quiet and reserved when it needs to be, rarely interrupting your immersion, if ever. Britell does nothing but enhance every scene he touches and he’s as essential to the film as Jenkins or any of the performers.

I understand not every moviegoer is going to want to see a film like Moonlight. It’s a difficult movie to watch not because I found anything outright offensive, but because it’s so fucking heartbreaking. That alone is going to turn people off because film is supposed to be a form of escapism, yet Moonlight is anything but. This character may be fictional, but these situations are real. These children exist somewhere, tormented, scared, and neglected, and all they want is a helping hand. You don’t have to be a drug dealer to reach out, and you don’t have to be a homosexual Black man to feel the emotional weight of Moonlight. Make no mistake, this is one of 2016’s best and most visceral films.

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