Movie Review : Moonlight (2016)
The 89th Academy Awards will soon be upon us and the world prepares at being outraged at Hollywood for picking a boring and inane movie for Best Picture. The overwhelming favorite for this year is Damien Chazelle's La La Land, which I kind of enjoyed so it's probably not winning anyway. Every single year, the best movie nominated never even comes close to winning. This year, Barry Jenkins' Moonlight is going to get robbed because it's a great movie shot on a shoestring budget that everybody's heard of but nobody has really seen. That also means that if there were a Nobel prize for cinema, it would win in a landslide. Lots of people have tried to make movies similar to Moonlight over the last two decade but everyone had failed until now. It is a nuanced, graceful and quietly confident movie.
Moonlight is the story of Chiron, a young man growing up in the streets of Miami. He is rejected and bullied early by other kids for projecting vulnerability before a local dealer named Juan (the excellent Mahershala Ali) takes him under his wing. Juan feels guilty for providing Chiron's mother with the crack that enslaved her, which looms over the friendship. The second part of Moonlight features a teenage Chiron, struggling to come to terms with his own homosexuality in a repressive environment. The movie follows Chiron into adulthood without judging him or the circumstances that shaped him into the man he's become. Now living a life similar to Juan's in Atlanta, Georgia, he is looking to make peace with who he is and find his rightful place in the world *.
This was a refreshing movie to watch in the era of identity politics since it was somewhat devoid of an ideological agenda. Moonlight is just trying to be real. It doesn't try to sway your judgement with cardboard characters or obvious scenarios. Barry Jenkins, who co-wrote and directed the movie, carefully remains intimate and subjective enough not to become political. I could argue that Moonlight is political anyway since it brilliantly portrays the challenges of growing up different in the United States, but I think it would be putting the movie in a box. The trailer made it look like somewhat of a pompous Terrence Mallick ripoff because of the disordered scenes and the grandiloquent music, but it works beautifully. The music in particular highlights moments which are important to Chiron, not what Barry Jenkins THINKS you should find important. This is what Moonlight is: a series of meaningful moments in a young man's life.
Moonlight is such a minimalist movie that aims to make intimate things larger than life, it relies heavily on actors' performances. There isn't much dialogue either, so it's the microexpressions and non-verbal stuff that makes it great. Moonlight is like taking a trip through Chiron's memories, so everything is filtered through his point of view and Barry Jenkins goes into great details to communicate his protagonist's emotions in non-verbal forms. Ashton Sanders' twitchy, tortured performance as teenage Chiron was absolutely remarkable in that regard. The kid has tremendous chemistry with Jenkins, who lets the camera linger in close-ups for uncomfortable amounts of time, which portrays a kind of discomfort filmmakers can rarely convey in two hours or so. Moonlights constantly walks a tight rope between underlying feelings and outward emotionality but never loses its balance.
So, Moonlight is the kind of intimate odyssey Richard Linklater's Boyhood tried to be a couple years ago. It's also the movie Brokeback Mountain thought it could be. I'm pretty sure Moonlight could've never been what it is without these two films, but it's a more polished, nuanced and ultimately successful heir to these two precursors. It's not a film that elicits violent emotions, but it's quietly compelling and almost hypnotic. It works from the ground up like a symphony and achieves intensity heights at the very end only, rewarding patient and emotionally open viewers. I've enjoyed Moonlight a lot. Perhaps even more co-nominee Arrival, which I really dug last Fall. I still have four nominees to watch, but I doubt there will be another film that's earnestly profound and nuanced the way Moonlight is. It'll be the unrewarded best movie of this year's Oscars.
* No, I didn't spoil anything. Just watch the damn thing, will you?