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'Moonlight" expertly captures identity struggles

By Michael Robinson     11/10/16 3:30pm

Every year, you hope to see some sort of film that leaves you feeling profoundly changed. Most years yield disappointment, with films holding high aspirations only to go so far, but not quite enough. This year, we’re lucky enough to get a film to make up for the previous disappointments: Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight.”

Adapted from an unproduced play titled “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” “Moonlight” tells the story of Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), a queer black man, in three parts, highlighting sections in his childhood, teenage and adult years. As the film progresses, viewers watch the various ways in which Chiron navigates crises in his own identity, an identity at odds with the required performance of masculinity. The actors in his life change throughout, with new faces coming and going while he attempts to answer the simple question, “Who is you?” This is a vast oversimplification for a movie wrought with complexities. Each chapter articulates new moments of clarity and confusion for Chiron as well as each of the members of the incredible supporting cast of characters in his life.

The production of the film is unlike anything currently being done, with incredible performances by the entire cast, who have already earned a Gotham award for best ensemble. Naomie Harris’ performance as Chiron’s mother is particularly fantastic, arresting the screen every time she appears. She empathetically portrays a mother struggling with her own tribulations while also trying to take care of a son who needs more than she can give.

Chiron is played by three actors, each with a distinct interpretation of the character that never feels splintered. While each individual performance is noteworthy, the best moments come from, watching how the characters interact and what manifests between them, from the dinner table scenes between Chiron and his surrogate father figure to the gut-wrenching conversations of Chiron and his mother.

Moments of silence permeate the film as Jenkins allows for chemistry between the actors to speak for itself. Through elegant lyricism, “Moonlight” transforms from a melodrama to a deeply personal narrative, utilizing dreamlike gazes and burst of orchestral cacophony rather than direct dialogue. Instances of fantasy and surreal states recur, drowning out the surrounding world and leaving the audience to witness the isolation and melancholy of Chiron. “Moonlight” isn’t a painful experience, nor is it pessimistic about its characters. The beauty of the film comes from the careful love given to each character. It’s clear that Jenkins understands each of the characters to a core, allowing an incredibly fleshed out world to form within the first five minutes of the film.

The editing, too, allows for states that transcend and mesmerize, conveying the affect and emotional weight of each instant. The camera vigorously shakes when Chiron runs from bullies and cuts intensely between static shots of his mother when she is suffering from withdrawal. The aesthetic implications of the film merge with the content, moving beyond typical narratives to form something that only film can do.

There is so much more to this film than any review can touch on, from the sweeping soundtrack to the thoughtful dialogue to the tantalizing cinematography. Beyond all of these lies a crew who have accomplished something that so many filmmakers dream of. No matter how much money the film makes or how many Oscars it takes home in March, the journey of Chiron will be remembered well beyond any other film this year.

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