Stories don’t come any more unique than this one. Set in the lower-class suburbs of Miami, it follows an African-American protagonist who struggles with his identity and sexuality. It’s a narrative that many would not relate to, yet the way it is told makes it utterly compelling to watch.
Moonlight is separated into three chapters, each one showing the central character, Chiron, at three different stages of his life: childhood, adolescence and adulthood. The first chapter, “Little”, sees a young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) befriending a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali). Acting as Chiron’s mentor, Juan is softer than his tough exterior suggests – he lets Chiron stay over at his upmarket home, and teaches him to swim. Their friendship displeases Chiron’s mother Paula (Naomie “Moneypenny” Harris) who, understandably, doesn’t want her son being with a “gangster”.
In the second chapter, “Chiron”, the story moves on to the protagonist’s teenage years. Paula has become a drug addict, and Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is constantly being taunted by the high school’s homophobic bullies, despite not being sure of his sexuality himself. By the third and final chapter, “Black”, an adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has ceased living in Miami and become a criminal in Atlanta. His muscular body, gold teeth and assertive persona are used to hide his emotional vulnerabilities, making him just like his idol Juan, and no happier.
For a film that discusses a number of taboo topics, such as drug use, gang culture and homosexuality, Moonlight does a remarkably good job of making the audience feel at ease. In a similar way to last year’s Academy Award-winner, Spotlight, the story is told in a gracious, dignified manner, and doesn’t resort to melodrama to play upon the sympathies of its audience. There is never a moment in the film that feels forced or shocking – an instance of romance between Chiron and his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) comes across as tender and restrained.
There are other elements that aid in establishing Moonlight’s soothing tone. The steady pacing allows the audience to become immersed in the film’s world, though it may be a little too slow for some; the cinematography, which is clear as can be, uses bright hues to give life to each setting; and the score by Nicholas Britell has this beautiful calmness about it that is rarely found in soundtracks these days. These factors all contribute to the safe, non-threatening approach which alleviates the film’s more confronting moments.
Yes, Moonlight isn’t just an exercise in cinematic artistry – there’s conflict to be had, and antagonists are present in the story. Problem being, the story’s antagonists are the schoolyard bullies mentioned earlier. Stereotypical and one-dimensional, their only purpose in the film is to intimidate Chiron, and the only reason given for their bullying ways is that Chiron is “gay”. It’s Moonlight’s greatest flaw, one that is large and difficult to ignore, but when the more positive factors of the film are taken into consideration, it really isn’t worth bothering about.
Though its name will forever be remembered for the now-infamous Best Picture stuff-up, Moonlight deserves acclaim for everything else it achieves. To take such a unique, personal journey and turn it into an engaging experience speaks volumes of the cast and crew. I cannot think of a film more deserving of Oscar success than this one – if only I’d seen it sooner.