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So as you know, I stopped writing lengthy reviews on this site this year, keeping the blog as more of a film diary of sorts.  Lo and behold,...

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Movie Review - Moonlight

Moonlight (2016)
Starring Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, André Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, and Mahershala Ali
Directed by Barry Jenkins

I will readily admit that I wasn't expecting to care for Moonlight in the slightest.  Preconceived notions about a plot revolving around a gay black kid's struggle led me to believe that this couldn't be further from a movie with which I would connect.  However, thanks to a realistic screenplay and a unique directorial structure (both created by Barry Jenkins), Moonlight moves along a fast clip as it explores a central character who we can't help but connect with regardless of our race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Told in a triptych fashion with three segments detailing the life of young Chiron, Moonlight allows us a glimpse into the world of a black child trying to come to grips with who he really is.  We first meet Chiron as a child (played by Alex Hibbert) when he earns the nickname "Little" for his meek, tender personality.  While hiding from bullies in an abandoned hotel room, Chiron is discovered by drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) whose kind persona causes Chiron to open up to him as he questions what makes him so different from the other kids his age including his friend Kevin (played as a child by Jaden Piner).  Chapter Two opens with a teenage Chiron (now Ashton Sanders) still finding himself struggling as an outcast, but beginning to truly understand who he is thanks to Kevin (now Jharrel Jerome).  As an adult, the Chiron in Chapter Three (now Trevante Rhodes) seems to be a completely different person as he deals with the aftermath of a monumental decision he makes at the end of the previous chapter.  His life seems to be on a particular path now (perhaps different than he could've imagined), but that changes when out of the blue he receives a phone call from Kevin (André Holland) with whom he'd fallen out of touch with during high school.

Moonlight seems overly basic when crafting a summary, but admittedly its strength isn't in its plot per se, but in its characters and their awakenings as they discover their paths in life.  Thanks to the rather tender portrayal by young Alex Hibbert of Chiron as a child and the heartwarming camaraderie brought to the screen by Mahershala Ali as his adult father figure, we in the audience are immediately drawn into Chiron's story.  Add to that the fact that his mother (Naomie Harris) is more focused on where to get her next stash of drugs than her son's well-being and we can't help but feel sympathy for Chiron's plight.  Somehow, Barry Jenkins and his casting director give us three (unknown) actors in Chiron who seamlessly meld into one another each taking on the quiet, subdued character creating more depth as the film progresses and ending with a final segment that proves heartbreakingly sad and emotionally effective in its simplicity.  While it's true that Mahershala Ali is getting the bulk of the awards season talk from the film, it's Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes who carry the bulk of the emotion in the film.  In fact, Ali is perhaps the slightest bit overpraised in his role which is quite small.  While he has one very heartwarming scene, I found the performance to be nice, but not overwhelmingly "awards-worthy" by any means.  Similarly, Naomie Harris is a bit too histrionic in her too-stereotypical role as Chiron's drug-addled mother.  There's little depth and originality to her character which felt too stock and rote to this reviewer.

Moonlight is well-directed for sure, but feels "independent" all the time (a la Boyhood from a few years ago although this is a superior film).  That's not really a criticism, but it's not able to break out of the "low budget" feel like the similarly independent Room was last year.  Still, I found myself drawn into this tale much more than I ever thought I would which is a huge credit to writer-director Jenkins and his outstanding ensemble of actors playing Chiron and Kevin.  Together, those six actors created an intensely personal and emotional tale that is surprisingly resonant to audiences across all spectrums.

The RyMickey Rating:  A-

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