Moonlight (2016) – Film Review

Directed by Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy, If Beale Street Could Talk) and based on the unproduced play: ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ by Tarell Alvin McCraney. ‘Moonlight’ has been heavily praised since its initial release in 2016, being just one of the films from adored production company A24, who also brought-us modern indie classics like ‘Hereditary’, ‘Waves’, ‘Eighth Grade’, ‘The Witch’ and ‘A Ghost Story’ just to name a few. And although ‘Moonlight’ may not be the company’s greatest film to-date, it is certainly one of the finest examples of visual storytelling and subtle characterisation in recent memory.

Plot Summary: Through three different time-periods – young adolescence, mid-teen and young adult. An African-American man (Chiron) grapples with his identity and sexuality as he grows-up in Miami. His journey to manhood being guided by the kindness, support and love of the community that help raise him.

In addition to receiving almost universally positive reviews, ‘Moonlight’ also won three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actor in 2017. And with the film only having a budget of around £1.1 million, ‘Moonlight’ has the lowest-budget of any Best Picture winner since ‘Rocky’ in 1976, which cost only £820,000. However, even with this smaller-budget, director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney always had a clear-vision as to what the film would be. As both men had similar childhood experiences living in Miami, with mothers who had both struggled with drug addiction. So it was decided early on to replicate those experiences, with roughly 80% of the film being shot in the same neighbourhood where Jenkins and Tarell originally grew-up.

Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes portray ‘Chiron’ across the three different time-periods of his life, and all do a great job in spite of them not sharing many of the same mannerisms outside of: ‘Chiron’s manner of speaking, yet this doesn’t stop the trio from still making ‘Chiron’s quiet and sheepish personality shine. The supporting cast of Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monáe and André Holland are all also fantastic, but with all four being such skilled actors who have given few bad performances throughout their careers, it was unlikely this indie drama would ever be an exception, it’s just a shame their characters aren’t featured more within the narrative.

Despite a large amount of James Laxton’s cinematography consisting of shaky hand-held shots, the film’s camerawork does allow for plenty of movement, as the camera rarely remains still during conversations between characters, making many of the story’s dramatic moments far more visually-interesting and giving each scene a consistent flow through the many revolving shots. Additionally, the film also utilises its cinematography to reflect ‘Chiron’s emotional state at many points, combining with the film’s original score for some very impactful story-beats. All of this working in-synch with the film’s bright colour palette and smooth editing, which both make superb use of the beautiful setting of Miami.

Another masterful and memorable aspect of: ‘Moonlight’ is its original score by Nicholas Britell, as the film has a very diverse yet gentle score with tracks ranging from orchestral to more piano-focused. As Britell decided to ‘Chop and Screw’ the orchestra to create a new kind of sound, this technique can be seen throughout the tracks: ‘The Middle of the World’, ‘Chiron’s Theme’ and ‘Chef’s Special’, with director Barry Jenkins stating that he always wanted the film’s score to be distinctive, as he actively tried to avoid the cliché of black-lead films featuring exclusively hip-hop soundtracks.

Much of: ‘Moonlight’s story was also inspired by Barry Jenkins’ own childhood in Miami, where he was surrounded by lush green grass and stunning golden sunsets, yet also lived in a neighbourhood where some tragic events took-place, declaring his childhood: “A Beautiful Struggle”. And whilst the film’s slow-pacing allows this story to be fully-explored, this shouldn’t put viewers off, as the narrative doesn’t move along at a brutally slow-pace, only slow enough to fully-immerse its events/characters in realism. Then of course, there is the film’s visual/minimalist storytelling, which is some of the best-executed I’ve seen in a long-time. As the film hides many small visual/audio details for those paying close-attention, presenting its themes of embracing yourself, addiction and masculinity in such a fashion where I feel different viewers will interpret the story in different ways.

To conclude, ‘Moonlight’ is a prepossessing coming-of-age story even if it isn’t one of the best films A24 has to offer, as while the film is still is an incredibly entertaining and well-written drama with an equally well-crafted original score and some creative cinematography to-boot. A24 simply has such a vast and exceptional range of indie films to choose from, as the production company is never hindered by genre, style or tone for projects they green-light. But if you enjoy dramas or are a fan of Barry Jenkins’ other work, then ‘Moonlight’ will surely be a captivating watch followed by a fascinating discussion, just be sure your paying full-attention. Final Rating: 8/10.

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