By Barry Lord
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is another in that seemingly new category of film releases; the ready-to-eat, just-add-water-and-voila cinematic masterpiece destined for greatness and – with Oscar night drawing closer – gongs aplenty.
But this is problematic too.
Nowadays movies arrive on our shores laden with adulation from critics, screaming superlatives like ‘masterful’ and ‘majestic’ that duly adorn the posters and all before the paying public has had a chance to concur.
The only thing that suffers is the movie itself because it has so much to live up to.
Now Moonlight, through no fault of its own, has to go some way to merit at least one of these high compliments.
On first viewing, the film does not immediately shake the ground under your feet, nor does it tell you something about life that hasn’t already been learned through bitter experience.
But that is missing the point for Moonlight’s real power is in its subtlety.
The effortless way it evokes sympathy for the characters despite never asking for it. Its many lessons are delivered like a quiet reminder rather than a hectoring roar.
It’s ostensibly a rites of passage story told over three-time periods. Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) runs into an abandoned apartment in Florida, seeking a hiding place from the neighbourhood bullies coming home from school.
He is rescued, in more than one sense, by Juan (Mahershala Ali) the local crack dealer, intrigued by this quiet, lonely little lad. Chiron has his troubles to seek.
His mother Paula (Naomie Harris) is hopelessly addicted to crack, leaving her young son to frequently come back to an empty home, at least when Mummy is not entertaining a new boyfriend/dealer or selling the TV (Chiron’s only comfort) to feed her addiction rather than her son.
The job of giving Chiron some semblance of a normal home life falls on Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) who manage to keep him on a relative straight and narrow path, until he reaches his adolescence where young Hibbert makes way for Ashton Sanders as the 16-year-old Chiron.
High school brings more harsh lessons about life and people, but also the beginning of Chiron’s sexual awakening.
In a short spell, Chiron has his first sexual encounter with his boisterous close friend Kevin (Jharell Jerome) and suffers a humiliating betrayal that ultimately leads to a descent into the criminal world that Juan had studiously tried to steer his young charge clear of.
Flash forward to adulthood and Chiron (now played by the adult Trevante Rhodes) adopts the sobriquet ‘Black’, moves to Atlanta and takes to the life of a drug dealer with verve and confidence. But one phone call, and an emotional reunion, chips away painfully at the façade he has carefully built for himself.
Director Jenkins – whose script is taken from a short story, In Moonlight Black Boys look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney – shows incredible assurance with the material in his possession and wrings terrific performances out of a cast – Harris apart- of unknowns.
There is no preaching, sanctimony or swelling orchestral score designed to elicit an emotional response. Here it is as much about what is unsaid rather than what is said; a glance or a flick of the eye says more than the best written soliloquy ever could.
The film is ultimately about the fragility of false identity and no amount of outward braggadocio can hide what dwells in the human heart. I may not be the demographic for this movie, but who hasn’t felt lost in the world and unsure about their role in it?
Who hasn’t felt alienated, dispossessed or abandoned?
Whether the film lives up to its exalted praise is up to those who buy a ticket, but it is a hugely rewarding piece of work – for me, far more accomplished than the vastly overpraised Boyhood (2015) – and indeed an important one.