Length: 1hr 51mins
We first meet ‘Little’ (Alex R. Hibbert), hiding from bullies in a derelict building. A chance meeting with the charismatic Juan (Mahershala Ali) and girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) opens Little’s eyes to a shiny world beyond his own in a shabby district in Miami. Juan and Teresa provide a modicum of stability for Little in his otherwise neglected life with mother Paula (Naomie Harris), but disappointment is just a heartbeat away and soon he is left with just one satisfactory relationship, with playmate Kevin (Jaden Piner). In his teens, Little becomes known by his real name, Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and remains close to Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) but childhood traumas become teen traumas and you wonder when fate will finally deal him a winning hand.
‘Moonlight’ is a collaboration between Tarrell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play – ‘In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue’ – on which it is based and Barry Jenkins, who jointly wrote the screenplay with McCraney as well as directing. The result is a powerful piece, with a poignancy that owes its existence to the credibility afforded by McCraney’s and Jenkins’ own childhood experiences, reflected in the movie. The film is split into three chapters of Chiron’s life and features three different actors playing him and also friend Kevin. Considering Jenkins ensured that Hibbert, Sanders and adult Chiron, known as ‘Black’ (Trevante Rhodes) did not meet until filming was complete, the continuity in characterisation is testament to Jenkins’ solid direction. Hibbert is an accepting Little and Piner plays the role of emotional lifeline in the shape of nine year old Kevin, sensitively. Sanders plays troubled teen Chiron with gravity, offset by Jerome’s cheeriness as teen Kevin. Rhodes’ measured mannerisms and perfect timing give Black a strength that makes you wonder if he is to be admired or feared and you concentrate all the more because of that; and also because the scriptwriters were economical with his lines. Andre Holland gives adult Kevin a gentle and giving personality who is happy with his lot. Ali and Monae are suitably saviour-like in their roles as Chiron’s role models, polarising Chiron’s mother, whose harrowing decline into crack addiction is admirably portrayed by Harris.
As is often the case with biographies, the plot lacks typical story structure. But the drama of Chiron’s life, coupled with a deliberate air of mystery ensures complete engagement throughout.
Visually, it is stunning. Cinematographer James Laxton worked hard to achieve Jenkins’ wishes regarding the depth of colour, given that he was working with an entirely black cast. And the close angle shots, giving away little information at times, along with some deliberately blurred shots, sharpen your senses and impart a surreal sense of realism. Using just a few pieces of covered music, composer Nicholas Britell is mostly responsible for the evocative mix of hip hop and classical music. The latter inspires a sense of pathos and also of acceptance on Chiron’s part; whilst the former lightens the mood and reflects the culture of the community.
Chiron’s first romantic encounter is a longed-for moment of real affection and is presented so perfectly on a moonlit beach. Highlighting some harsh realities of the world in which we live, ‘Moonlight’ offers redemption by playing out moments like these with such tangible tenderness, you cannot fail to be moved. This is not a movie to miss.
Reviewed by Lisa O’Connor on February 24th 2017 at Cineworld, Brighton.