New York Film Festival Review: Moonlight

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“What’s a faggot?” young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) asks his drug-dealing surrogate father (Mahershala Ali), who found him hiding in an abandoned house in the slums of Miami, over a would-be family dinner. “A bad name for gay people,” he cautiously replies, receptive and patient to what this young soul might say next. “Am I a faggot?” Chiron asks in reply. “No,” he answers, “but you can still be gay.”

Moonlight is as majestic an exploration of sexuality and growing up as has ever been filmed. It’s an answer of sorts to the heteronormativity that lent Boyhood its mass appeal. Though less all-encompassing than Richard Linklater’s masterpiece, director Barry Jenkins’ second feature (after the little seen Medicine for Melancholy) films three specific chapters of Chiron’s life, the first in grade school (Hibbert), the second in high school (Ashton Sanders), and the final in his mid-20s (Trevante Rhodes, the film’s greatest acting discovery). Similar in structure to last year’s Steve Jobs, each chapter sees the evolution of Chiron’s relationships with his mother (Naomie Harris), unofficial adopted family (Ali and Janelle Monae), and childhood friend turned lover (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland, respectively). We see these people grow enormously each time jump, while Chiron, no matter how much his body changes, still manages to feel like the shy young child we met at the start.

On first viewing, the first two acts don’t feel all that cohesive, with Chiron seemingly moving through life without purpose. But the third act immediately ropes the whole experience together that retroactively illuminates the first two thirds with the same beauty that later ties them together. Moonlight is a film for the patient, but those who stay with it through the end will find a masterpiece that was hidden in plain sight all along.

Visually, Moonlight makes its use of the film medium essential. From the neon lit condo Chiron watches his mother do drugs in to the moonlit beach that sparks his first romance, Jenkins communicates this groundbreaking coming of age tale vibrantly and with a dreamlike quality. There’s no dialogue here aside from the exchange above early in the film that loudly and proudly takes a stand on anything. The statement here is the film’s existence itself. Too rarely do we see this struggle in the black community or the gay community put on film. The voice Moonlight provides is as fresh as it is necessary.

But even without its sociopolitical importance, the film would still be a gorgeous, emotional package that taps into the trial and error method of finding yourself. A lot of that is thanks to several top-notch performances from a varied and talented ensemble. Ali and Harris particularly stand out as Chiron’s most misguided parental figures. But then Rhodes as the oldest Chiron plays a significant part in unifying the film and purporting its progressive themes. The final shot of him is one of naked vulnerability that tears down the societal notions of masculinity. It’s a small moment virtually devoid of flash and pizazz, to the point where the quiet seems courageous. It’s the kind of ending that makes you want to sit on a beach soaked in moonlight and reflect on everything that makes you different and the same. Whether you’re gay, straight, black, white, man, or woman, Chiron’s story rings true. For that, Moonlight is the most human film of the year. Grade: A

By Matt Dougherty

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