Wednesday, November 16, 2016

OVP: Moonlight (2016)

Film: Moonlight (2016)
Stars: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Andre Holland, Janelle Monae, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali
Director: Barry Jenkins
Oscar History: 8 nominations/3 wins (Picture*, Director, Supporting Actor-Mahershala Ali*, Supporting Actress-Naomie Harris, Adapted Screenplay*, Cinematography, Film Editing, Score)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 5/5 stars

Last week, in the wake of the election, I decided I needed to be rewarded with something special.  I had not slept well, I was reeling from the casual racism and sexism and bigotry that our next president exhibited so ferociously (and 46% of the voting public endorsed without question).  And so I (like a number of people, considering the uptick in the box office) decided to treat myself to Moonlight, a film from Barry Jenkins that has been getting critical hosannas across the spectrum and was toward the top of the "films I want to see" list for 2016.  Thankfully, unlike the election, this movie didn't disappoint-despite sky-high expectations, I left it moved, changed, in awe of the wonderful motion picture that I had seen lain before my eyes.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film unfolds in a triptych, chronicling the life of a young man named Chiron, who goes through three phases of his life.  First there's "Little" where he's a young man who befriends a couple, all the while dealing with being bullied at school for being "different."  The second phase is years later, as he's a high school student and is constantly harassed, bullied, and tortured by his classmates, with the sole exception of a boy named Kevin, with whom he eventually enjoys a brief sexual encounter on a beach, but then Kevin gives in to peer pressure and harasses Chiron, which causes him to lash out at his chief bully, sending him to jail.  Finally, there's the third chapter, "Black," (Kevin's nickname for Chiron), where Kevin is a drug dealer, hardened through the years who is called randomly by Kevin as an adult, and they eventually admit to the feelings they've felt for each other for years.

It's a tender, wonderful movie in the vein of something like Weekend or the Celine & Jesse trilogy.  There's something remarkable about watching this young man grow up, his world so jaded by hardships (his father figure dying while he's at a young age, his mother being a drug addict and emotionally abusive), and yet seeing where his hopes-and-dreams lie.  It's telling to see a scene late in the film where Kevin admits that his life didn't turn out the way he had hoped it would, but that he is still happy.  One wonders if Chiron is hoping he can say the same as he ventures out and proclaims something he's tried his whole life to state, that he's been in love with Kevin since their childhood together.  It's a beautiful, touching moment in a film filled with them.

Honestly, it's hard to not just turn into a series of gushes for this movie.  The acting is uniformly excellent.  Usually when you have a character that ages in front of you, there's a weak link, but all of the different Chirons adapt well to their introverted, deeply-cautious main character.  Rhodes, as an adult, manages to convey the sort of toughness that is required in his character's line of work, but also still finds that shy, desperate little boy that we had seen years earlier, seeing his chance at love come before him.  I think one of my biggest weaknesses at the cinema is the "just in time" aspect of romance-movies with characters who aren't discovering love for the first time, but instead realizing that they found the love of their life just under the buzzer.  It's romantic because there's an added thrill to it, a sense of danger that lacks in other movies.  Kevin and Chiron are meant for each other, and up until the last few moments it's not entirely sure that one of them is willing to admit that.

The film is smart enough to fill up the cast with enough rich characterizations that Kevin-and-Chiron aren't the only central focus.  Naomie Harris is unrecognizable as a drug-addled mother, finding the dangerous influence she has on her son and showing that to the audience, while remaining deeply, pointedly human.  Mahershala Ali is in the same league as a crack dealer who befriends Chiron, trying to give him a life outside of the one he has, not knowing that fate will guide him into being in the same profession, as well as finding the happiness that he had hoped he would as a young man.  Both actors get great moments in the script to show their range, from Harris confessing she knows the reason her son is picked on to Ali explaining what a homophobic slur is to a young Chiron.  They feel like real people, and while very much supporting players, are rich and full in their own right.

Combined with an excellent score by Nicholas Britell, and some haunting cinematography, Moonlight is everything one could hope for in what I've considered a bit of a drought for quality cinema this year.  Check it out now, in theaters-it's something special that you won't regret.

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