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I really love stories with something more than a straightforward narrative structure. And, though Moonlight, told in 3 vignettes in the life of Chiron (its protagonist), does not boast the most complex of narrative tricks, I appreciated and enjoyed this part of the film very much.
Landing on 3 separate parts of his life, his childhood, adolescence and adulthood, Moonlight tells the story of a man who, at an early age, realized he was gay. The first two chapters of the film deal very directly with the challenges of a poverty stricken African American growing up gay in a brutally harsh and unforgiving environment.
As a child, Chiron, called “Little” during this time of his life, is mentored by the strangest of all people – the most well meaning and least menacing drug lord recently put on film. His mother, played by a strong and Academy Award nominated Naomi Harris, descends into addiction and Chiron, terrifyingly bullied at school turns to Juan, the drug lord, after a chance meeting. The reasons why Chiron’s mother becomes an addict are never made clear (and, perhaps, that’s the point), but the void in his life is filled by Mahershala Ali as Juan.
Ali is mesmerizing and goes left whenever the audience assumes he will go right. He is quiet when expected to be loud, calm when expected to be wild, comforting when expected to be demeaning. His role is the talk of critics and his Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role is almost assured. His chemistry with Alex Hibbert, who plays the young Chiron, is undeniable and I found myself wanting more of this story as the movie moved into the other parts of Chiron’s life. Of all the great scenes on film this year, I defy anyone to find a better one – one that is more thematically and metaphorically central to the movie it is in – than the swimming lesson scene. What a beautiful moment.
The first chapter is, far-and-away, the best chapter of the film.
In the second chapter, Chiron is a high school student still struggling with his identity. It is clear, though not shown on screen, that Juan wanted to shield the boy from a life on the streets – the life of Chiron’s mother – and we encounter Ashton Sanders in the role now. Sanders is good and takes the audience through more of Chiron’s story, but the impression of Hibbert remains strong. Too strong. As new revelations – terrible ones – are unfurled, Chiron is left at a significant crossroad. What happens next is lost to a decade long break in the movie.
The third chapter picks up with Trevante Rhodes as Chiron and revealing much about this chapter would take away from the surprises the film has in store. Suffice it to say that Chiron as an adult remains very affected by the events of his early life.
The character arc in Moonlight is well told. And the movie does a wonderful job of wrapping up Chiron’s story without being too pat about the task. The movie, while leaving plot threads hanging, thematically concludes and that closure is most satisfying.
Of all the nominees for Best Picture (and Moonlight has a great chance of winning), this one is the most poetic and lyrical. Writer/director Barry Jenkins has an emotional attachment to this story which is, in part, autobiographical, but, rather than dwell in every event of Chiron’s life, Jenkins lets the audience in on the formative events of that life. He shows, he does not tell, and he trusts his audience to fill in the blanks.
It is an arrangement that works beautifully.
Moonlight is a terrific movie, a potential Best Picture, and one that contained my favorite scene of the year.
MOONLIGHT receives FOUR AND A HALF SWIM LESSONS out of a possible FIVE.