Moonlight (2016): Beauty in Every Frame (Review)

Moonlight; Trevante Rhodes as Black.

Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney‘s semi-autobiographical story (a drama school project) and adapted by Barry Jenkins, who also directed, Moonlight is a thing of beauty. From the very first frame each and every shot is a luxurious feast of colour and this sumptuous offering fills each frame with  a vivid slice of life in Miami.

That said, there are bits that drag uncomfortably. these moments are often the most tense and, in terms of character, dramatic.  In the beginning the lack of dialogue is almost maddening.

Then we realize there is a reason for this irritating silence, it shows us the nature of the main players. Initially, these are Juan and “iLittle.” Later it applies to other characters who are close to the boy as he grows  up. The film follows the life of Chiron, played by three different actors, the lad’s story is broken into three separate parts.

“iLittle” is the first step in learning about Chiron, where he comes from and a suggestion of what his problems are.  He meets Juan, a drug dealer (played brilliantly by Mahershala Ali) who tries to help the bullied youngster. 

We learn that Little’s mother is a crack addict who buys her drug of choice from Juan’s pushers. The little boy, who will become Chiron and then “Black” knows he is different.  He believes he may be gay and asks Juan what a “faggot” is.

Each stage of Chiron is presented in the same fashion. The colours are bright, absorbing and add to the dichotomy of the boy’s life. A home in what appears to be Miami’s project housing, a mother that he hates and an inability to express himself.

Jenkins takes the viewer up close to this boy’s life. The three stages show what shapes him and sends him on what feels almost like a preordained path.  A frustrated, and angry, act of violence changes Chiron’s life and when he is out of prison he has, for all intents and purposes, “become” Juan.

It would be wrong to think of Moonlight as a “coming of age film.” The three tiered story of Chiron is much more than that. By the end of his story, Jenkins and his cast have made sure that this feature is more than the sum of its parts.

Each segment of the lead character’s life shows development of self and an attempt to learn what his role is in this world.  With Miami as a backdrop, not the bit that tourist’s flock to but the grimy underbelly of Florida’s “Little Cuba,” the brightness is, essentially, a lie for both Chiron and his peers.

The boy’s life revolves around the drug scene, the projects and the unrepentant bullying that begins when he is a very small boy who thinks he may be gay.

At its core, Moonlight can be seen as a film about embracing one’s true nature. However, since Chiron is so crippled in the area of sharing his real thoughts and feelings, it may be more about trying to understand his sexuality and where it fits in his world.

Alex R. Hibbert (in his first ever role) is splendid as the youngest version of Chiron; “iLittle.” Awkwardly silent and full of big eyed glances, the young actor inhabits the body of a boy surrounded by pain and questions he cannot find answers to at home.

The second stage of Chiron’s life is portrayed by Ashton Sanders (Straight Outta Compton, The Retrieval) who brings a truth to the older version of the boy who is “touched” by Kevin twice.  

Finally Trevante Rhodes comes in as the adult Chiron, who goes by the nickname that Kevin gives him earlier; Black.  He is “Juan 2.0” with a better car, and gold “grills” on his teeth.  Rhodes embodies the “man-child” that Chiron has become, showing that when it comes to relationships, he is still out of his depth.

Naomi Harris  is all too believable as the addicted mother of Chiron. Harris  manages to scream the truth of her character’s circumstances and she “ages” through the film in looks and demeanor.

Janelle Monáe is spot on as Juan’s partner who provides Chiron with a stable female influence in his life. Her inner calm is the perfect counterbalance to Paula’s negativity.  

The three actors who play Kevin in his various stages of life are also up to the task of delivering. For the record these are: Jaden Piner (Kevin aged 9), Jharrel Jerome (Kevin aged 16) and André Holland as the adult Kevin.

Moonlight, as shot by James Laxton (Tusk, Bad Milo) is simply gorgeous. His framing of a scene is spot on and the lighting is beyond perfect. The climatic shot at the end could have been done by an old master.

The film’s message seems to be that we all end up back where we started either by our state of mind or our acceptance of who we are. In that sense Jenkins’ film has succeeded brilliantly.

Moonlight is a full 5 star delight. The film, its story and the players all pile on levels of nuanced emotions that grab our imaginations while the film itself provides a treat to the eyes.  Watch this film as soon as possible.

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Author: Michael Knox-Smith

World traveler, writer, actor, journalist. Cinephile who reviews films, television, books and interviews professionals in the industry. Member Nevada Film Critics Society

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