The Academy sure likes movies that break your heart. After watching Manchester by the Sea, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t see a movie this year capable of punching me in the gut as violently as that one. As usual, I was wrong. Moonlight made me just as sad and depressed.
Written and directed by the marvellous Barry Jenkins, Moonlight is a portrait of an African American growing up in the projects in Florida. The story has a three-act structure that offers three separate snapshots of the protagonist, Chiron, at different stages of his life — as a quiet, innocent child (Alex Hibbert), as an awkward teen discovering who he is (Ashton Sanders), and as a hardened adult (Trevante Rhodes).
Each segment is harrowing, heartbreaking and devastating in its own way, and yet so beautifully shot by Jenkins, who admits paying homage to the exquisite visuals of legendary Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love, Chungking Express). There are side-by-side videos available on YouTube now that show how the scenes mirror each other.
Unlike Manchester by the Sea, Moonlight doesn’t really have any moments of levity or hints of hope and inspiration. There’s no humour in Chiron’s world, just darkness, despair and loneliness. Like Hidden Figures, it’s an important film that will open eyes, and like Hell or High Water, it’s a film that reflects contemporary American society and gives a voice to those who have been forgotten or stigmatized.
What really stood out about Moonlight for me, apart from the muted style of Jenkin’s direction, is how genuine it felt watching Chiron’s story. The dialogue, the facial expressions, the body language — everything came across as authentic.It’s done so much better than a film like Precious, which also portrays a sad existence but shoves it in your face way too hard. On the other hand, though Chiron’s world could not be further from mine, I was able to sympathise and empathise because the film touches on so many universal values, from love and hate to friendship, bullying, discrimination, loneliness, identity, isolation, hypocrisy, and forgiveness.
Personally, I liked the first two segments more than the final one, which was slower and more contemplative, but also more cliched. I think it’s good to know the film’s three-act structure because I didn’t know about it going in and I was almost disappointed every time the story jumped in time to the next act. I wanted to know more about kid Chiron and I wanted to know more about teenage Chiron. I even wanted to know about what happened between gaps. That’s the sign of great storytelling and character building.
Of course, the film wouldn’t be as effective without some wonderful performances. It’s hard to pick a standout from the three versions of Chiron, each played to near-perfection by the three actors. They looked very different and developed different personality traits, and yet you could sense the same person underneath. Special mention also goes to Best Supporting Actor favourite Mahershala Ali, who shines in the first act as a drug dealer who befriends Chiron. Naomie Harris is also great as Chiron’s abusive mother.
In the end, Moonlight is a film I wish was longer because I wanted to know more about what happened to Chiron, and yet it’s also a film I don’t want to watch again because it’s so heavy — almost too heavy — and because of how sad it made me. As a piece of art, however, the quality of the movie is undeniable, delivering not just a great portrayal of a character and his life with tremendous realism but also well-crafted storytelling, poignant drama, and stylish aesthetics. It’s a film that will strike a chord no matter who you are.
4.25 stars out of 5