Letterboxd Review: Moonlight (2016)

Unable to watch the 90th Academy Awards this last Sunday due to technical difficulties, I settled for watching the Best Picture winner of the 89th, and I wasn't disappointed. In a causal loop of a film industry, where everything from the production to the performances to the marketing blitzkrieg get bigger and bigger as time goes on, it turns out the boldest statement and most striking of stories to be told is one that is poignantly little.

While writer/director Barry Jenkins does everything he can to highlight the mood and poetic truth behind the three pivotal chapters of his protagonist's life, with hypnotic close-up shots and enigmatic lighting choices, the real standouts of this extremely personal and internal tale are the music, and the performances.

A film that comes out and says with its opening musical choice, "Hey, this is a film about people who exist. People who never get films about themselves." That's impressive. It's attention-grabbing. But then the deft mixture of the oddly foreboding orchestral score creeping up behind Chiron and the specific blend of southern hip-hop and old school soul and R&B...that's staggering. And that's before we even get to "Classic Man," chopped and screwed to slow the music to the lingering vulnerability of the story and the characters. By even using chopped and screwed orchestra, Moonlight is allowed to live where it really lives, in the small flicker of eyes and soft nods that pass for interaction in the deep corners of personal rejection and breakthrough.

The three men portraying Chiron over the course of his boyhood (Alex Hibbert as "Little"), his adolescence (Ashton Sanders as "Chiron"), and his manhood (Trevante Rhodes as "Black") have sewn together a masterful character study of the masculine projection assigned to the most prominent aspects of Black American culture. While there's plenty of novelty in seeing how this confused, tormented young man evolves, it is a vision of pure wonder to see how he stays the same. His head cocked at an angle downward, his clipped and aggressive eating habits, the way he holds his gaze and his mouth as if he wants to speak his whole soul but can't find the right words. These actors worked in concert to give us a living, breathing person out of thin air. Combine that with the craft and care given by Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monae, and Andre Holland in their performances, and the level of grace on display is immeasurable.

Though it's a melancholy watch in spots, I can't speak any higher of how encouraging a film this is. It spearheads a growing trend in the art form, seen a little more deliberately in big studio tentpoles like The Last Jedi, Black Panther, Moana, etc., that shifts the narrative further away from combating an enemy or a weakness and further toward finding personal identity. I find that the more we encourage the search for identity the more truth and self-worth can be seized, and this movie seeks to further that endeavor.

This review is a part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile, which includes reviews and movie lists not covered here at the blog, including a ranking of several franchises and excerpts from the book, Cinema Autopsy, which is available on the Amazon Kindle store.
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