By: Muneeb Arshid
There’s a new film vying for the top award in February and it might be one that not many end up seeing.
Moonlight is the new feature from director Barry Jenkins and is a character and societal study through three different points in one man’s life. A film about discovering oneself personally, sexually, and societally, Moonlight gives us a reason to believe that Chiron (the man in question) will battle his way through life to be happy with himself at the end.
Living in a rough neighbourhood of Miami, we are first introduced to Chiron (Alex Hibbert), a 9-year-old boy who goes by the name of “Little”. Little has trouble finding a crowd at school while also dealing with issues at home that are not very apparent to begin. Little doesn’t talk much and is constantly bullied and chased around by the “big boys” at school. He meets Mahershala Ali‘s Juan, who saves him from the bullies one day and provides him shelter at his house with girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) after Little declines Juan’s offer to drop him off at his house. Through his interactions with the 9-year-old, Juan finds out about Little’s mother Paula (Naomie Harris), who at first seems defensive about Little being out alone with a “stranger” until Juan finds out that Paula frequents the street for drugs that Juan takes care of, which doesn’t make Juan too happy.
Juan (and more importantly, Teresa) become the parent figures in Little’s life which seem to have settled one side of his personal life. Little can now focus on the other aspect: his social life at school. At that young age, Little knows that he is slightly away from the “norm”, whatever the norm might be these days. He becomes more sociable with the rest of the kids after his homelife becomes slightly more stable, however, he doesn’t begin to understand himself until he becomes friends with another boy named Kevin (Jaden Piner).
The film then proceeds to look at Chiron’s life through high school as a teenager where he is able to explore his relationship with Kevin further both in a casual sense but also sexually. Chiron is becoming more aware of himself, while at the same time being sidelined by his mother, who has become much more dependent on an abusive relationship that is predicated on the reliance of drugs which have made her more distant from Chiron. An unfortunate situation at school leads to the next phase of the film, adulthood.
Chiron, now calling himself Black (Trevante Rhodes), is dealing drugs away from his hometown of Miami, in Atlanta and leading a life that is very similar to his pseudo father-figure Juan, from his early years. His life has become very stagnant until he receives a call from his old friend Kevin (André Holland), who is still in Miami and owns his own, successful diner. The two reminisce about the good times when they were younger and sort out differences that separated the two at the end of the second phase of their lives as depicted in the film.
Moonlight is the type of film that broaches a topic that is relevant to the year or era that it was released. There aren’t many, if any, films that follow the life of a man trying to figure out his place in the world, specifically a gay, black man who knows that he isn’t “normal” from a young age and has to adapt himself. The great thing about the film is how nicely the script works with the rest of the film. The script has been written with the characters in mind, with each character having a specific role in Chiron’s life and how important they are to him in figuring out what his own personal “normal” is in life. From short-term characters like Juan (who is only in the 1st act of the film) to long-term relationships that transcend through all three acts such as his mother (or Teresa) or more importantly his relationship with Kevin; each and every relationship is vital in shaping Chiron in becoming the man that he becomes.
The film never feels rushed, never feels like it has to conclude plot points just for the sake of completing plot points which may not have worked in the hands of another director, but with Barry Jenkins at the helm, rushing the film would have been far worse and fleshing out the characters and their storylines is essential in telling this story of Chiron.
That is what a strong script can do, it can shape the way the story is told coherently and with purpose and ensure that there is no hitch in the plot.
And when there is a strong script with fully fleshed out characters, everything else on the periphery becomes less of something that you notice, and in this case, that is a very good thing. But, the periphery doesn’t have a lessening effect on the film, rather the cinematography and the score work together to elevate the film into territory that has gotten this film the top award within the Los Angeles Film Critics Circle, which is one indication of possible success come February. The upcoming release of La La Land will give Moonlight a run for its money, but we know for a fact that the Best Picture list this year will be a strong one.
We, at TFL, present Moonlight with a very high grade of A (9.3/10) and an even higher chance of contending well at the Oscars in February.