I had it as a sort of mission when writing this blog, to not focus too much on movies that are all that current. The idea was to spread some knowledge about films that I had enjoyed over the years that maybe the average movie watcher had missed in the infinite sea of media that is cast carelessly about these days. Then I saw It’s Only the End of the World and was reminded that for some time now, a young Canadian director with an actual voice had gone relatively unnoticed by most people, and that bothered me some so I figured, “Meh, it can’t hurt to throw one in there.” I thought that would be the end of it and I could go back to digging out a film from 2012 or something that had caught me off guard with its combination of subtlety and greatness, while flying almost completely under most people’s radar (Calvary being perhaps the best example of this). Now, all of a sudden, Moonlight.
Not only is Barry Jenkins’s film (based on Tarell McCraney’s play) good – it’s the best film of the year. I’ll come out and say this now – if Moonlight doesn’t win at least Best Director at the 2017 Academy Awards there is a BIG problem in Hollywood (perhaps, I should say a bigger problem). Though, regardless of any accolades this film may (and will) accumulate, it stands on its own as a poignant portrait of growing up poor, black, and gay in America. As a middle-class, white, straight male, I can’t say that I identified with many of the main plot points of the narrative, like when protagonist Chiron (played masterfully by Ashton Sanders) is bullied in high school for his mother’s drug addiction, and as a result beaten up by his one and only friend who he has romantic feelings for. That never happened to me. But everyone has felt like an outcast, like the world has it in for them, at some point or another, and while many of us are being melodramatic and feeling sorry for ourselves, Chiron actually might be on to something.
Throughout the film our protagonist is running. At the beginning, “Little”,(Alex R. Hibbert) as he is known in the first act, is being chased by a group of kids his age before he finds refuge in an abandoned building. When local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali) finds Little and takes pity on him, the two form a bond that Little so desperately needs. His mother’s drug habit keeps her unavailable in every conceivable way, and when the surprisingly warm-hearted crack dealer realizes this, he and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) take Little in. Some films would track the relationship between Little and his surrogate parents and any hardships that might arise between them before they all realize that what Little should really be doing is making things work with his own family and assisting his mother with kicking her drug habit. While there are some incredible scenes between Little, Juan and Teresa, the film takes quite a different approach as before you know it, Little isn’t so little anymore, he’s a teenager and being portrayed by a different actor.
It’s necessary to pause at this point and point out the bravery involved in this kind of storytelling, especially in the contemporary world of cinema. While HBO and AMC are all about character-driven narratives (see Breaking Bad and nearly all of HBO’s shows for reference), it is not often that one sees such depth in a character in a film, especially when that character is portrayed by three different actors. Yes, I am aware of Todd Haynes’s 2007 film, I’m Not There, where six different actors play Bob Dylan, and the creativity behind that is not lost on me, however, neither that story, nor any other I can quickly bring to mind, comes close to the depths of human emotion that Jenkins explores in this film. As a director who previously had one feature credit to his name accompanied by a few short films and a TV episode, I consider such a choice very courageous, or perhaps Jenkins figured he had nothing to lose. Either way, I think it speaks to the immense amount of talent, and confidence in that talent, that Jenkins has. He has shown in just one film that he is one of the best storytellers working right now and I personally can’t wait to see his next film.
Anyway, Chiron, as he is referred to in the second act, is put through the ringer to say the least and eventually it is more than even he can take. When he is betrayed by someone he cares about (no spoilers here), he takes revenge on those he deems responsible into his own hands. Then, suddenly, we find ourselves following the third incarnation of our protagonist. He goes by ‘Black’ now and is well…different. His muscles nearly ripping through his shirt and his grill glistening gold when he smiles, this dude is not to be messed with. Obviously a lot has happened since Black was bullied in high school and he has made a few changes. Trevante Rhodes has two tough acts to follow after his costars have brought the narrative this far and he does not disappoint. He portrays the fragmented, confused Black with perfect subtly and nuance that reminds us so accurately of the same character we have been cheering for. Despite his very different appearance, it is clear when an old friend calls out of the blue, that Black really is just Chiron and Little at his core, and that where we come from, who we really are, never leaves us no matter how hard we try to escape from it.
I’m a big fan of striking cinematography and in no way was I disappointed by the work of James Laxton on this film. Many of his previous credits include documentary films, which serve him well for such a rugged, visceral story. Beautiful blues and purples, reminiscent of the film’s title, along with strong shades of red, grace the screen at peak moments and heighten the emotional impact. I found when reflecting on the film, that it was in the power of the images that I found myself most breathless. Laxton and Jenkins are the perfect team, as images and narrative flow together seamlessly to create a truly beautiful film.
At the risk of revealing too much about a film that I enjoyed knowing basically nothing about, I will stop there. Do know that Moonlight is a film that anybody with a pulse will enjoy. With all the prejudice and misunderstanding in a world convinced that it is making social progress, films like this are not just important, they are essential. While the cinematography is beautiful, the acting pristine, and the directing near-perfect, what separates Moonlight from other films is its heart, something that cannot be faked or copied. It is, in many ways, the most original film I have seen in years, perhaps ever. A true classic of cinema, see Moonlight as soon as you can.
Violence with a Story