Movie Review: Moonlight

An independent film gives a different look on urban life

Directed by Barry Jenkins
With Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali

Independent films have a hard time making it to local screens. The new film Moonlight, shot on a moderately low budget in Florida, has earned some awards and nominations including a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama, beating Manchester by the Sea among other nominees. It also has eight pending Oscar nominations, and winners will be announced Feb. 26.

Director Barry Jenkins and writer Tarell Alvin McCraney adapted the script from McCraney's play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.

Moonlight follows the life of a very quiet man in Florida during three phases in his life: early childhood, his teen years and adulthood. The main character, Chiron, is played by three different actors, as is his one constant friend Kevin. The adults are played by the same people with standard aging makeup.

The film has a somewhat loosely constructed plot, and works more as a character study. Chiron, at first played by Alex Hibbert, is called by the nickname Little due to his size and shy nature. He is chased by bullies and hides until an adult named Juan finds him. Juan (Mahershala Ali), despite being a crack dealer, is one of the few people to treat Chiron decently. The boy spends more and more time with Juan and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), so he can avoid having to be with his abusive and drug addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris).

We next catch up with him in high school, where Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) is going by his first name but still being bullied in particular with homophobic taunts, which are based more on his being shy and passive than on any actual sexual or gender preference. He continues to have his one friend Kevin (now Jharrel Jerome), who is one of the few people he talks to.

Then there is a significant gap and he turns up again in modern times, going by the nickname Black (played by Trevante Rhodes) and meeting up with older versions of a few of the remaining people for the resolution of the themes set up in the first two acts.

The film succeeds in showing not only the development of one person via several key events, but also the changes to the urban area in the same time. There is a real difference to other films about the inner city and the people who live there. The crack dealer, for example, is shown as a multifaceted person who is neither fully bad nor good. He offers Chiron a role model, as the young boy has nobody else to turn to.

Kevin, the friend, also offers a helping hand and tries to teach Chiron how to handle bullying. Later, they get into typical adolescent talk as they navigate through the difficult teen years.

Chiron's mother Paula also isn't all bad, though seeing her good points is a bit hard. She is struggling to do the right things, but crack has gotten the better of her.

The urban area of Miami is shown as a tough place, but also somewhere that people call home. This is seldom the way that lower income urban areas are shown.

The school system, in the middle section, comes off poorly, however. Teachers don't manage to keep students such as Chiron from being victims. And this has a big impact on Chiron's life.

The subject matter of bullying even some LGBT issues are handled in a fairly realistic manner, so Moonlight doesn't come off as a preachy afterschool special.

Director Jenkins treats all the characters with an even hand and tries not to be overly judgmental, except perhaps some of the bullies, who have little to redeem them. He also does a fair job in re-creating three distinct eras filled with different types of fashions, cars and other details, which are key to the films credibility.

Also working well are the three actors playing Chiron, as they blend together to create a single character. The three actors playing the friend Kevin are a little less convincing as the same person.

The story overall could have used a bit more complexity as it meanders a bit, but for a low budget film it achieved quite a lot and certainly showed a different side of people and places that are often dismissed with stereotypes.

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