A Searing Portrait of Repressed Identity: Moonlight Review

Who is you?

That is the titular question at hand during the entirety of Barry Jenkins’ visceral character study, Moonlight.

After a string of underwhelming films this year, such as Jason Bourne and Cafe Society, I was floored when Moonlight not only delivered, but inspired me as well.

As a filmmaker, it is common to hear, “Everything’s been done before“, which is true.

Another thing that’s true is that it doesn’t matter if the genre is well worn, but it matters if the artist can find new ways to tell the same story.

Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is a not only breathing new life into the coming of age story, it’s a lyrical and profound statement as well.

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Life is a wonderful and heartbreaking opus of emotions and regrets, and filmmakers since the beginning of film have been trying to capture that.

Barry Jenkins is the latest filmmaker to attempt and succeed at this.

The moment we feast our eyes on the film’s scorching colors and lush skin tones, we are presented to not only our world, but a wonderfully stylized sandbox.

This is a world where drug dealers are nearby, kids are often mean and unsympathetic, and our protagonist, Chiron (known as Little), is afraid and alone.

The person that finds a frightened and battered Chiron hiding in an abandoned apartment complex, is Juan, played with intoxicating charisma by Mahershala Ali.

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He’s the fatherly figure of this story and although his “drug dealer with a heart of gold” character is kind of a cliche, Ali infuses depth into each line and each facial tick.

This contrasts well with the soft spoken and introverted Chiron, played by Alex Hibbert.

However, one thing is apparent after Juan finally breaks through with Chiron, he doesn’t want to go home to his mom.

When we finally meet her, she scolds her son for being out all night and closes the door on Juan before he can even introduce himself.

The mother is played by Naomie Harris and she’s a revelation to watch.

During the first segment, she’s put together and wants her son to succeed, but there’s something bubbling under the surface.

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The strongest thing apparent on screen, minus the phenomenal visuals, is the subtext.

Things are said without ever being said and even though the film jumps 20 years in less than 2 hours (it arguably could’ve been three hours long and still successful) we feel the wear and tear time has had on everyone.

James Laxton, the cinematographer, captures these moments with subtlety and expert camera placement.

When most cinematographers for this kind of film would go for hand held/Terrance Malick type shooting, the film is a steady beast.

There are moments of hand held and dolly shots, but overall, the film feels firmly in control and the bright visuals leap off the screen.

During the second segment, I realized that this film was not just about visuals and subtext, it was about how our protagonist is never able to be himself.

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Ever since he was a child, Chiron was never able to express who he is.

Kids berate and beat him, his mother gets high and neglects him, and every time he seemingly finds happiness, he’s quickly brought back down.

Chiron is gay, introverted, and repressed.

Many people will label Moonlight simply as a “Gay film” or “Black film”, which is not the case.

This is the first time I’ve watched a character study and felt so bad that I was never able to get to see who they could become.

As a child, he’s beaten for being different and showing early signs of homosexuality. As a teen, he’s constantly being called “little” or “black”, names he was given as a child.  The world is literally holding him back from coming out of his shell.

What’s even worse is that once he becomes a “man”, he becomes a drug dealer, with the body of a greek god.

It’s all a facade and once it becomes clear what he’s become, it breaks your heart.

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Like most good things, they have to come to an end and once we arrive at the third act, we’re treated to some of the best acting of the year.

Andre Holland plays the older version of Kevin, a character that Chiron has a troubled history with, with a sly charm that brings some needed uplift to the proceedings.

Trevante Rhodes is the older and hulked out Chiron. Wearing grills and putting up the appearance that he’s a man to be messed with.

This disguise disappears the moment he lays eyes on Kevin, a man he hasn’t seen since high school.

In an instant he’s back to the introverted boy that nobody understood. He’s the little puppy who needs help and no matter what he says or does, he can’t hide this from Kevin.

The chemistry and nuance that Rhodes and Holland display here is why Moonlight is so memorable and mesmerizing.

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On paper, Moonlight seems to be a coming of age tale/character study told in three parts, with an seemingly uninteresting lead.

In execution, it transcends genres and is a lyrical ode to life and it’s struggles and a searing visual experience.

More films like this need to come out and based off it’s amazing box office these past few weeks, people are hungry for them.

I for one, can’t wait to see it again on the big screen!

★★★★½ Lyrical, inspiring, and emotionally profound, Moonlight offers one of the best coming of age films and character studies in recent memory.

All images via A24

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