Enticingly gritty and emotional, Moonlight starkly presents the trials and tribulations of a poverty-stricken African American community. Based in the contemporary American South, the film shines a light on prominent social problems such as drug use, bullying and sexuality to show the emotional transformations of characters outcast by society. The forlorn yet hopeful tone puts forth the message that one is always able to overcome societal obstacles to achieve a prosperous future.
Moonlight traces the life and struggles of Chiron (Alex Hibbert), a lower-class child from Miami. Severely bullied at school due to his timid personality, Chiron is one day found hiding in a rundown dwelling by drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes him to his house and allows him to stay the night. Chiron grows close to Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). He begins to see their house as an emotional refuge from school and his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), who is verbally abusive and addicted to cocaine. As the film progresses, it illustrates Chiron’s physical and mental transformation as he transitions to adulthood.
Moonlight is comprised of three parts, representing representing Chiron’s childhood, teenage years and adulthood. The sections allow the audience to clearly see the changes that Chiron, his close friend Kevin (Andre Holland) and Paula go through. The sections, however, do not make the film feel clunky — Moonlight’s editing makes the story move smoothly and the characters’ acting styles remain constant even though different actors portray Chiron and Kevin in different parts of the film.
The dialogue between characters feels unforced and conversational; it is difficult to tell that the actors memorized scripted lines since they present their dialogue in a natural manner. The script and language always flowed and seemed almost minimalistically written as the characters relied on actions rather than words. However, each spoken word bore immense symbolic meaning. The script concludes with somewhat of a cliffhanger ending, allowing the audience to decide several of the characters’ fates for themselves.
Perhaps the shining star of the film is the brilliant cast. Each actor that portrayed Chiron silently used actions, rather than words, to express their emotions and carry on the film. Chiron’s poor posture, for example, expressed his desire to hide from society in no words. Kevin’s laid-back and sunny personality starkly contrasts with his friend’s melancholy attitude, making them an odd but interesting duo. While Juan, Chiron’s mentor, only appeared in the first part of the film, his role as a conflicted father figure of Chiron earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. Most notably, Harris expertly captured the many sides of Paula’s ever-changing personality, displaying a “caring mother” persona at times and selfish, half-crazed drug addict at others.
Other creative features add to the film’s appeal. High-pitched violin solos marked transition scenes, while several country and rap songs blend together to display the Southern African American culture. The various settings of the film also carried meaning. For example, Chiron rotates between residing in his poorly maintained shack and in Juan and Teresa’s well cared for house in Miami, showing his attempts to escape his life of poverty. The costumes are casual and often unnoticeable, which was appropriate given the poverty-stricken setting.
Another interesting aspect of the film is the racial diversity, or the lack thereof. Consisting entirely of an African American cast, Moonlight contrasts with many past Oscar-nominated films that have focused primarily on Caucasian characters. The lower-class Southern culture and slang that is prominent throughout also adds diversity to the Oscar’s movie slate.
With few flaws, a superb cast and eight Academy Award nominations, Moonlight is easily one of this year’s top tearjerkers. Not only does the film shine a light on an array of social ills, it also optimistically illustrates that no matter the circumstances, one can always achieve love and prosperity.
1 hours, 51 minutes
Rated: R for for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout
Directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris and Mahershala Ali