Review: ‘Moonlight’ Shines Through Poignant Coming-of-Age Drama

"Moonlight" (2016) - Movie Review

Magic in the ‘Moonlight’ – An Early Awards Contender?

Moonlight has all the right ingredients to be a favorite throughout awards season. Fueled by fragmented storytelling, director Barry Jenkins examines a trio of situations throughout the troubled life of Chiron. Its touching journey is highly reminiscent of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and last year’s Steve Jobs to some extent.

When we first meet Chiron (Alex Hibbert), he’s a timid young boy in a terrible situation. His mother, Paula, (Naomie Harris) is emotionally abusive and consumed by drugs. One day, Chiron, referred to as “Little,” is chased by his tormentors to an abandoned motel. An easy target, he doesn’t fully comprehend why he’s subjected to this treatment. Part of it is also has to deal with being labeled gay. At such a young age, sexuality is not a concrete topic either for him. Little is found by a good-hearted crack dealer (Mahershala Ali), who takes him in for a night, offering stability for the first time in his life.

Jenkins then fast-forwards to a time in Chiron’s adolescence. No longer “Little,” Chiron (Ashton Sanders) continues to deal with the same circumstances that plagued his childhood. His mother has gotten worse over the years. His classmates are no better, beating him to a bloody pulp. Detached from his peers and still lacking confidence in himself, Little finds solace in his childhood pal, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). Friendship flirts with romantic tension, though it’s a part of Chiron he wants to keep under wraps.

In the final segment, Chiron transforms into an adult (now played by Trevante Rhodes). Despite knowing who he is underneath, Chiron changes his persona to survive adulthood. Playing the tough and hardened drug dealer, Chiron is now referred to as “Black.” Even with a new shell of “manliness,” Chiron is still haunted by his past when his mother and best friend re-enter his life.

SEE ALSO: TIFF 2016 Review: Moonlight 

Moonlight wavers between being intriguing and being difficult to watch at times. Wounded throughout various parts of his life, we able to empathize with Chiron. Here we have an individual who’s struggled with identity and forced to bury his identity to save face. All three actors playing bring substantial depth to the character. And while the trio of actors don’t create a visually smooth transition between segments, it’s in the consistent acting, which carries Moonlight home. Cues are carried over seamlessly as one actor to the next pick up the reins.

With Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, as source material, there is such a raw examination of poverty, sexuality and self-discovery. In many situations, elements like poverty and drug abuse are slightly muted. The themes are present, though never in your face like an after-school special. As viewers, we get a peculiar glimpse of the life in the Miami projects through the lens a young man, who’s ultimately trying to survive while find himself.

Jenkins’ screenplay remarkably connects the dots between the various segments much more masterfully than Jobs did last year. Moonlight is marketed as the “story of a lifetime.” While we’re not provided the entire picture of Chiron’s lifelong struggles blow-by-blow, it’s these beautifully captured segments that do all talking. Many times throughout, it’s the actions or lack-of that define the person we know as Chiron. Early on in Moonlight, Ali’s surrogate father figure, Juan, attempts to get Chiron talking. He refuses, confining himself to his shell. Even small moments like this enrich character development minus any dialogue.

There is this intimate relationship that we as an audience have with Chiron. Even if you weren’t raised under the same circumstances, the rich human element is surely to be a marvelous takeaway from Moonlight. Think of it as a piece of poignant poetry that will break hearts while pursuing plenty of life’s questions.

Written by
Matt Marshall has been reviewing films since 2003, starting with "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." He specializes in home media, including 4K UHD, Blu-ray as well as box office analysis. He has a B.A. in Communications/Journalism from St. John Fisher College and resides in Rochester, NY.

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