Starring: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex R Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, Andre Holland
Directed By: Barry Jenkins
Plot: A story of a man told in three parts, starting out as a child, Little, (Hibbert), moving into his teenage years, Chiron, (Sanders), and finally as an adult, Black, (Rhodes). As Little, he has to survive his crackhead mother (Harris), with the help of a generous drug dealer (Ali) and his girlfriend (Monae). As a teenager, he starts developing feelings he isn’t sure how to deal with. As an adult, he’s morphed into a much stronger man, but he still has to deal with the demons of his past.
What Works: So I finally got to see Moonlight. Months of hype. Awards. Nominations. People calling it a frontrunner. Critics bathing their tongues all over Mahershala Ali. I’m not sure the hype actually helped. I’m not sure I saw the same Moonlight everyone else saw. Don’t get me wrong, this is a really good film. I can tell you it is not my pick for Best Picture of the year though. So, the hype failed me there. What actually surprised me is how somehow Mahershala Ali is getting all the hype for this film when the ensemble around him is so strong, and in some respects stronger. He’s not that big of a name, so how did he break out over Trevante Rhodes or Ashton Sanders? Ali is really good, but he’s only in the first part of the film, which is the shortest of the three acts. He has a few impactful scenes, but really the three actors who portray our protagonist do great work too. Naomie Harris is also a standout, as her character appears throughout the film. She does a great job as his mother, struggling with addiction, but having no real plan to get out from underneath it. Usually we see crack addled parents wanting to be better, but Harris is the rare character that doesn’t seem to want to better herself. Which makes the payoff in the third act so much better. When we get to the adult phase, we have Trevante Rhodes, who is phenomenal as Black, a man struggling with his past while trying to make a future for himself. He lives in a world that isn’t too accepting of homosexuals, yet there’s this part of him that yearns for a connection. It’s a brave performance, one that Rhodes should be getting more praise for (honestly, more than Ali). Holland, who is almost always excellent, is great here too as Kevin, the grown up version of a boy that Black used to have a crush on. It’s a tragic romance, for sure, but it just feels so real. Probably the strongest thing Moonlight has going for it is how incredibly real everything feels. It doesn’t ever really feel like acting, but rather like a documentary, and we’ve been let into these peoples lives. Barry Jenkins clearly has something he wants to say as a director, much like Spike Lee did when he burst onto the scene. He has so many ideas about how black lives exist in America today, and how to feature black actors and actresses in roles.
What Doesn’t Work: It’s a film I know I’ll probably only see once. There’s something about the darkness in the film, the general unhappiness, that makes this a difficult watch. I enjoy films that are rewarding experiences, and I’m not sure Moonlight is that. It takes a lot to make it through Moonlight, not because of pacing or anything like that, but because of how depressing the film is. You feel so much for these characters, and the shitty situations they’re in. You want them to rise up, to beat the struggle, but it just never seems like tomorrow is going to come. This film is absolutely worth watching once. I demand that you sit through Moonlight, because we need to be making more films like this. Not every film can be perfect, some have to challenge you. Some films can be great, and also not have a “rewatch” value. This just happens to be one of those films, and it is because it is such a soul crushing experience the first time around. People have talked about how Silence was a difficult watch, but honestly, Moonlight is probably harder for me. I just wanted someone to be happy.
Final Word: While it isn’t the very top of the year, it certainly comes close, or at the very least strives for it. It challenges you, and what you think a film can be, and what an experience at the theatres can be. It’s the rare movie that makes you feel for pretty much every character on screen, and not because these characters are being tortured or put through some horrific war time scenario, but because their lives are much harder than yours. Because they have hopes and dreams and desires, and it looks like they’ll never get there. It breaks you as you realize that these characters may live their whole lives not knowing actual happiness, but just taking each moment as “getting by”. I understand the hype around Moonlight, and I’m impressed so many people have picked this as their favorite of 2016. It gives me hope for the future of cinema.
Final Grade: A