Review: Moonlight (TIFF 2016)
PLOT: A portrait of a young African-American man, growing up in the shadow of a crack epidemic, who struggles to come-to-terms with his homosexuality in a culture that idealizes hyper-masculinity.
REVIEW: Since its Telluride debut, Barry Jenkins’s MOONLIGHT has rocketed to the top of most awards pundits lists for potential Oscar best picture nominees. It’s become such a lightening rod for conversation here at TIFF that the festival was forced to add several additional press screenings just so those of us who didn’t have the movie on our radars could finally catch-up with it.
Sure enough, it’s a real conversation starter, saying strong things about race, gender, drugs and of course, sexuality. MOONLIGHT emerges as an imminently relatable work of art, which will no doubt appeal to any demographic thanks to the universality of the basic theme, which is how destructive it can be to hide who you really are.
Cut-up into three sections, each traces a part of the main character, Chiron’s, life with the first charting his life as a child in Miami during nineties, through his high-school years to his eventual manhood as a drug dealer in Atlanta. Jenkins’s film subverts audience expectations at every turn, including stylistically as despite the gritty subject matter, this is as artful and lovingly shot/scored as anything by auteurs like Tom Ford or Damien Chazelle, each of whom showed their own amazing films at TIFF.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with Chiron played at the three stages by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and the hulking Trevante Rhodes, who gives a star-making performance. Early on, we see Chiron running in the streets, hiding in crack dens while his junkie mom (Naomi Harris) hustles. He gets the attention of a local drug kingpin, who unexpectedly takes a liking to the boy and proves to be a surprisingly ideal father figure. Played by ‘House of Cards’’s Mahershala Ali, Juan, rather than train young Chiron to sell drugs, takes him swimming and encourages him to accept himself for how he is. Juan and his kind girlfriend (the beautiful Janelle Monae) teach him that it’s OK to be gay, even while Juan struggles with the guilt of supplying drugs to Chiron’s mom, knowing that it’s his product that’s ruined the boy’s home.
As the movie goes on, Chiron proves to be an incredibly absorbing character, being an effeminate teen routinely picked on by his classmates, before turning into a muscleman who looks like he walked off the cover of a comic book, played with an unexpected sense of vulnerability by Rhodes. Everything about the film is impeccable, from the cinematography by James Laxton, to the score by THE BIG SHORT’s Nicholas Britell, to the supporting cast, with another juicy role for ‘The Knick’’s Andre Holland.
Of them all, it’s director Jenkins who emerges as arguably the biggest star, and this will no doubt put him squarely on the A-list, which, as it’s certainly apparent from this film, is where he belongs. While it’s easy to get caught-up in festival hype (the danger of which is being illustrated now by the reaction to BIRTH OF A NATION), MOONLIGHT is a staggering work and something which needs to be seen by everyone lest they not be part of the conversation.