Moonlight

1hr 51mins | Rated M

Starring: Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, Duan Sanderson

Let me begin by simply saying this: Moonlight is an essential film and you'd be an idiot to overlook it. Recently nabbing the Golden Globe for best drama motion picture, this is one of those films so beautiful, painful, hypnotic and raw that I had troubling exhaling in the last act - only releasing air like a giant balloon being deflated as the credits rolled. Cinematic experiences like this don't come around very often, where you bear witness to a vision that feels both completely fresh, and as universal and deeply personal as film-making can get.

A portrait of a man told in a moving triptych by director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy), Moonlight follows the life and times of Chiron, young boy growing up gay and black in a crime-addled neighbourhood in Liberty City, Miami. Based on a play, the film is told in three parts, each act charting a different part of Chiron's experience from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood. Managing bullies, a drug addict mother and the tumultuous war inside himself, Chiron is a character who bleeds hurt.

No matter how he evolves and hardens into maturity, his wide-eyes tell stories of trauma and hope.

The other astounding thing about this movie: three actors embody the chequered main character effortlessly, as if all fragments of the same soul. Be it child actor Alex R. Hibbert, the gloomy teen Ashton Sanders or the brutish Trevante Rhodes, every actor marks an evolution of a boy named "Little" to a man named "Black". Janelle Monae (Hidden Figures), Mahershala Ali (Luke Cage, The Good Wife) sparkle as Juan and Theresa, the kindred-spirited couple who take Chiron under their wing as he flees from Paula, his addict mother, played with tragic desperation by Naomie Harris (Spectre). With the cast's powers combined, you'll often struggle to remember that Moonlight is a movie at all. There are no weak parts, no false notes, just a deft tapestry of a human life.

Jenkins' vision for Moonlight is unparalleled in its precision, a collage of techniques that remain varied without ever feeling shambolic. Stylised lighting and artfully symmetrical establishing shots are flecked through long, languid handheld shots of naturalistic, stilted conversation. The tone of the film ebbs and flows much like the pulsing ocean tide that is returned to repeatedly in Moonlight. Just as the tides turn, so too do people - a fact probably best embodied by Chiron's confidante Kevin, played with nuanced, born-again joy by Andre Holland (The Knick).

This film tackles themes that are all-encompassing in scope, but restrains them through a sliver of a keyhole. It's a film about place, identity, and the cosmic pull of connections between souls. It's also, apparently, the kind of movie that makes you write "cosmic connection between souls" without a hint of irony. Beyond that, there's a disarming window in a world seldom seen on the big screen: a world where people are poor but not downtrodden, a neighbourhood ravaged by crime where the sun still shines. It's also rare that a film explores the intersection of LGBT issues and race in such a subtle, gentle manner.

As best as I tried, there are countless, breathless moments in this film that would never translate here in black and white as well as they would on the big screen. Rush out to see this with all the urgency of a beautiful full moon on a summer's night because, to quote Juan, describing his friend Chiron through a beaming smile, Moonlight is a "real damn prize".

NZ Herald
5 STARS

 
Moonlight
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