Reel Talk

Moonlight Makes the Unfamiliar Understandable

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Folks, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. No, not Christmas. I can take or leave that. No, it’s time for the prestige pictures to start rolling out. The films that we’ll slowly start to hear about again and again in regard to all of the prestigious film awards. There’s certainly films that come out throughout the year that will get some attention, but it’s this last month of the year where us regular folk will finally get to see all of the amazing movies that critics have been obsessed with since they saw them in the festivals earlier this year. Which means that we’re at that point where we’re going to start seeing the Oscar movies. Now, they obviously haven’t announced the nominees yet, but from what I’m seeing we’re down to three different strong contenders. There’s La La Land (which I’ll be writing about tomorrow), the feel-good and throw-back musical about Los Angeles that can fulfill that niche that awards love where it’s a loving tribute to a genre of film that has fallen by the wayside and reminds us why they’re great, similar to the Artist from a few years ago. Then we have Manchester by the Sea (which I talked about last weekend) the old ‘white people being sad and learning life lessons’ standby that’s always going to get nominated for all of the awards. But there’s a third movie that I’m seeing on countless “best of the year” lists, and that I feel could be a real contender for the big prizes. And not just because it’ll be a perfect antidote to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite controversy. It’s also because it’s an amazing and deeply moving film about a subject matter that isn’t exactly commonplace. And that film is Moonlight. And it is a powerful piece of cinema.

The film follows a man named Chiron, a young black man living in the slums of Miami. We see Chiron at three distinct times in his life, when he’s a young boy, when he’s a teenager in high school, and when he’s in his late twenties. At it’s heart it’s a character study, following one boy as he struggles to find himself while also doing his best to survive in the rough world that he was born into. His mother is barely interested in him, and a burgeoning crack addict, his father is out of the picture, and none of the other kids like him at all. Which is the perfect time for him to essentially establish a second family with a man who turns out to be his mother’s drug dealer, and his wife. Chiron begins spending more and more time with Juan and Teresa, trying to ignore the depressing reality of his life. Which isn’t helped by the fact that all of the adults in his life quickly realize that one of the reasons that he’s not exactly getting along with the other kids is that Chiron is gay. he hasn’t figured that out yet, but for them it’s blatantly obvious, and leads him to be constantly bullied. And if you hoped that maybe that would eventually stop, we see that by the time he reaches high-school it has not. Chiron sticks with his abusive mother, losing Juan somewhere in the process, and tries to just drift through life, not wanting to be picked on or separated from the pack. Which isn’t helped by the fact that he begins having feeling for a boy named Kevin that’s he’s known for a while. And, shockingly, when the two run into each other on the beach one night, their passions get the better of them and they have a sexual experience together.

Which is almost immediately followed by an abusive bully that seems to exist solely to make Chiron’s life a living hell convinces Kevin to beat Chiron up. But this is a bridge too far for poor Chiron, who is officially done letting the world use him as its punching bad. So he marches into science class and smashes a chair over the head of the bully, being sent to juvie as a result. And that’s where Chiron’s life takes a drastic turn, and we’re introduced to the third phase of this story where Chiron is a young man living in Georgia as a prolific drug dealer, taking over the family business as it is from Juan. He seems to be enjoying his life, no matter how much it didn’t seem to be the direction his life was going to go in. But his past is suddenly brought before him when he gets a call from Kevin, who is now living in their hometown as a cook at a diner, and who wants to catch up. This causes a flurry of emotion in Chiron, leading to him traveling out to Miami to spend and evening with Kevin, being confronted with how different his life has become. And the two men spend the whole night talking to each other, coming to grips with the men that they’ve become.

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This movie was tremendous. It’s only the second film from writer/director Barry Jenkins, but it’s a truly monumental work that was really unlike anything I’d ever seen before. The structure of the film worked fantastically for the story, just checking into three time periods in Chiron’s life to see his development, and it made for a wonderful character study. But the real draw for this film is terrific performance after terrific performance. Mahershala Ali is getting a lot of attention, and rightly so, for his portrayal of Juan the drug dealer, and he really does deliver a great performance with a shocking amount of pathos for a character archetype that would normally be one-note. But that’s not to discredit all of the other great roles in this film, particularly the six children who play Kevin and Chiron. Each and every one of the actors playing Chiron knocked it out of the goddamn park, creating a real man who you completely believe as a living and breathing person.

But the thing that I loved most about this movie was how incredibly relateable and understandable this film felt. Which is a real success. If there’s two life experiences that are possibly most out of my wheelhouse it’s being black and being gay. I got lucky enough to be born in America as a straight white guy, the type of person America seems to like the most. so you would think that a film like this would feel almost completely alien to me. And in a way, it is. But the film does something miraculous, and manages to boil down the experience of a young, gay, black man living in the South and made me understand his struggles completely. This was a film about a man living his life, and trying to find himself. He’s trying to figure out who he is, and what his life is going to be. And, like almost everyone in the world, that doesn’t really work out. His life gets away from what he wanted, he had to leave the pack and become someone that he didn’t expect to be. And if that isn’t one of the most universal experiences a human being can have, I don’t know what is.

Moonlight was written and directed by Barry Jenkins and released by A24 Films, 2016.

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