Film Review: Moonlight

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Moonlight was easily the most anticipated film of the year in my community of filmmakers and cinephiles. The buzz it had created around film festivals and its high critical acclaim before even hitting big screens was not only exciting, but also intriguing. I was curious about this film—would it live up to the hype? Would its transition from stage to screen be smooth? Could it bring something new to the table in an age of repetitive tropes, remakes, and sequels? Moonlight not only lived beyond the high expectations I had, but was also a beautiful, telling film which helped me understand why we sometimes reinvent ourselves and how societal norms can have an outstanding impact on the version of ourselves we think we’re supposed to be. How should we portray ourselves to the people who will judge us no matter what? How do we stand up to the bullies in our lives—the classmates, family, and partners who fail us again and again? Who do we go to when we only have ourselves? Moonlight magically answers these questions through the main protagonist, Chiron, who we join in three snapshots of his life: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.

Throughout the film, I had one phrase pop into my mind over and over again. “This is a work of art,” I’d think as Barry Jenkins, screenwriter and director, unified the score, beautiful shots, and emotionally driven scenes. It was as if the lighting and coloring were painted seamlessly to portray mood and tone; the dialogue, silence, and music adding a layer of sentiment and vibrancy; and atop, nuanced cinematography which tied it all together.

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In the opening scene we are introduced to Juan, a big guy running the drug business in a poor “projects” of Miami, Florida. The shaky, always-moving camera, paired with the inquisitive Juan, a nervous dealer, and a poor beggar sets the tone that exposes to us the harsh reality of poor, black communities. After that, we cut to a similar shaky-cam shot of Chiron, an elementary-school-aged boy, running from bullies who very obviously want to beat him up. Chiron has no choice but to break into an abandoned apartment, where he hopes the bullies will just leave him alone, but eventually is too scared to come out at all. Juan finds Chiron and bargains with him—if he provides Chiron with food, can he tell him where he lives? Although off-putting at first, we can see that Juan means no harm at all, and is just trying to soothe and return the small boy back home.

It takes a while for Chiron to open up and say anything at all. It isn’t until much more time goes by, and Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend, gets involved, that Chiron reveals that he does not want to go back home. And why would he? This is something that struck me, growing up with and around children who took care of themselves while their parents were working nonstop. This is something that is not often thought of when the norm is to have a 9-5 job that coincides perfectly with a child’s school schedule, or when you can afford a nanny. Older siblings take care of younger siblings, and when you’re an only child you take care of yourself. So much curiosity and learning is left to chance here, and I’m honestly grateful that my sister and I managed to not get ourselves into too much trouble, but how can you control that? This film helped me empathize with children who are curious about themselves and the world around them—their feelings, their social-economic status, the crime, abuse, and drugs surrounding them—yet who don’t get answers and have to make moral decisions themselves.

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Juan anecdotally teaches Chiron a little about life each time they meet, and Chiron starts looking up to him. It is clear that Juan has gained Chiron’s trust when he teaches him how to swim. The beautiful scene is reminiscent of a baptism, and there is a clear change in their relationship from this point on as Chiron eventually finds exile in the home of Juan and Teresa. As Paula’s drug habits worsen, and boys at school are still difficult for Chiron to get along with or even understand, Teresa and Juan become the parental figures in Chiron’s life. Paula obviously starts resenting Chiron, and his life at home deteriorates even more. In one of the most moving scenes, Juan and Teresa answer Chiron’s deepest questions about his mother’s abuse, drugs, and his own sexuality. Although Juan is your average drug dealer archetype—masculine, tough, “scary”—he tenderly cares for and is honest with Chiron.

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We join Chiron again in adolescence. He’s dealing with the same things as before—bullies, this time high school aged, who mock him for his demeanor and his home life. Paula is an all out crack addict, and Juan has passed away. Things are utterly chaotic, yet Teresa and her home continue to be a place of acceptance and peace. Chiron explores sexuality and romance with Kevin, a boy he’s known since childhood. Kevin is the juxtaposition of Chiron, as he appears to be tough, popular, and confident. Their romance is very much a secret but is ultimately betrayed when Kevin, who won’t risk damaging his façade, beats up Chiron when peer pressured by bullies. At this point, Chiron has to decide whether or not to keep hurting or to hurt back. He stands up to his bully in a jaw-dropping scene and is escorted away by police.

This chapter again hit home as I noticed the mostly-black school Chiron attends in a post-segregation America. Not unlike him, I attended a high school that was 81% Hispanic. The jail-like buildings and big security guards are nothing new to me, but having lived out of that world for over five years, it hurt me to know that this wasn’t an exaggeration, but instead, an extremely accurate portrait of schools in South Florida. The violence, though not as prominent in my school, was something you’d hear of from neighboring schools. Kids getting sent to juvie and brawls in the courtyards were the norm. Jenkins does the audience a service by using this lifelike narrative, which portrays very real circumstances, instead of using a plot-driven story. This is one of the films strong suits, which is reinforced by the snapshot structure of Chiron’s life.

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Atlanta is the next place we are taken, where an adult Chiron is running the drug business. There are striking similarities between him and Juan—as if he has reinvented himself to pay homage to the father figure. He is remarkably muscular, tough, and well praised, a new façade to the soul that is very obviously still suffering. A phone call from Kevin beckons him to return to South Florida where he hopes to gain closure and reconnect with an old friend.

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The movie was one of the most beautiful films I have ever experienced, both visually and aurally. Nicholas Britell composed the perfect score, made up of beautiful strings and keys, a masterpiece that fit in beautifully with the orchestral, expository scenes, as well as the remarkable, passionate performances by the superb cast. One of my favorite things about the film was Jenkins’ use of food as a means of communication and love. From Juan’s first peace offering to Chiron, to Kevin’s surrender in the end, food facilitates Chiron’s relationships.

I will not soon forget the work of art that was Moonlight.

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*none of the images used in this post are my own.