‘Moonlight’ review — a deeply impactful coming of age tale

I only recently watched Boyhood for the first time, a film that, like Moonlight, documents a child’s journey throughout the early stages of their life and the challenges and hardships they encounter along the way. While Boyhood is exceptional from a technical standpoint (the fact that this was actually filmed over 12 years still astounds me), Moonlight manages to do a better job of establishing it’s characters and pulling you in to what is ultimately a much more emotionally deep and rewarding film.

Barry Jenkin’s latest follows Chiron, a young closed-off boy living in Miami, through his youth and into early adulthood as he discovers his identity. From the outset, it’s clear that Chiron is the type of person who likes to keep to themselves. He is bullied by the other kids in his neighbourhood and is given the nickname “Little”, a name Chiron doesn’t take to fondly. After a nasty encounter after which Chiron finds himself holed up in an old flat he meets Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who takes a liking to Chiron and acts as a father figure to him. Ali’s performance as Juan is wonderfully subtle, he sees this boy who is so clearly vulnerable and tries his best to help him grow by letting him be comfortable in his own skin. Juan may have a frowned-upon profession, but he’s definitely not proud of what he does, especially when it comes to the branching consequences of his actions.

Moonlight is set over three chapters, each documenting a stage of Chiron’s life. This is an immensely effective way of developing a character as it gives you a small insight into where he is at a particular moment, then jumps ahead and allows you to fill in some of the blanks yourself. This was a part of the film that really engaged me, I was so enthralled without being filled in entirely. I cared about Chiron and how he would adapt and change as he grew older. My favourite of the three chapters, titled “Black”, showed a version of Chiron in his mid 20s. He’s so different here physically, but you can tell he’s the same vulnerable and closed-off Chiron behind the veil, all the muscles and bling are just another wall. It’s worth mentioning at this point just how phenomenal the casting of the three versions of Chiron is. All three actors are able to totally capture the character, they add layers onto the last iteration whilst maintaining his core feelings and emotions.

Speaking of great acting, Naomie Harris gave one of the most heartwrenching performances of the last couple of years as Chiron’s mother. her character is so seemingly innocent, yet gets sucked into the world of drugs she so desperately wants her son to avoid. Watching her descent into anger, then desperation, and regret was an incredible experience that had me unknowingly holding my breath at times. She is the only actor in the film to appear in all three chapters, and her relationship with her son is one of the most interesting arcs throughout the whole story. Her role is made all the more applaudable when you realise that she had to film all of her scenes in three days due to visa issues!

Aside from the performances, Moonlight is also just an insanely well crafted movie. Nicholas Britell’s score is simple yet haunting (I’ve been listening on repeat), particularly during a scene in which Juan teaches Chiron how to swim. The frantic and tense strings from the track “The middle of the world” combined with such a calm and tender moment make for a memorable scene. The editing in this film was also something I really jumped onto, there were several points in the film where the shot would linger on a character’s expression for just that little bit longer whilst their dialogue from the next shot would play so you could soak up every bit of what they were feeling. This is most effective during a scene in a diner in the film’s third chapter where Chiron sees an old acquaintance for the first time in a while. The film’s colour pallet is also easy to fall in love with, using shades of neon blue and purple to draw you in.

Before seeing Moonlight I was sure that the Oscars were going to be a clean sweep for La La Land, now I’m not so certain. The Latter made me feel like going for my dreams through incredible musical numbers and loveable characters, whereas the former was able to more effectively instil its message of vulnerability and discovering yourself through a dark and thoroughly enjoyable movie. This is definitely a must-see for any avid moviegoer.

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