Wednesday, 18 January 2017

Film Review: Moonlight brings the coming of age genre into the 21st Century

Any film attempting to chronicle a boy's journey from childhood to manhood in the wake of the transcendental Boyhood has a tough task ahead. How do you top a film like that - a sprawling, three hour film shot over twelve years to allow actors to grow on screen before your eyes? Moonlight tackles similar subject matter, but it finds a brilliant new angle to tell that story from.

Where Boyhood felt enormous in its scale but breathlessly intimate in its scope, Moonlight abandons the massive canvas entirely and fixates on specific days in its character's life, taking place during three undefined years. It allows the film to feel incredibly personal and deeply intricate, and it's refreshing that the film does forge its own path after Boyhood essentially claimed the coming-of-age genre as its own. But, aside from the way the story is told, Moonlight has one other key trait: the platform it gives to a voice rarely seen in cinema, and the way that voice is spoken.

Moonlight follows Chiron (played in parts by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), a young black gay man, as he attempts to find himself and who he really is in the world he inhabits. We start with Chiron in his adolescence, where we find a shy and bullied child who fails to understand what makes him different. When he wants to escape his emotionally abusive mother (a brilliant Naome Harris), he finds comfort in the home of Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). We next follow him as a teenager, where we also catch up with everyone else in his life, and finally end the film with Chiron as a young adult living in the shadow of his teenage years.

It's an almost dauntingly intimate character study, and one so laden with negative emotion that it threatens to feel top heavy at any given moment. Yet, Moonlight remains on balance throughout. As well as looking at the complexity of self discovery and the agony of feeling different and isolated, Barry Jenkins' film also finds moments of beauty and satisfaction, and it makes these moments count just as much as the bad ones. If we get just one other film so beautifully formed around a single human being in 2017, it will be a year to remember.

The way Moonlight handles Chiron's handling of his sexuality feels almost revolutionary. The subtlety of the film's first act is mesmerising - Chiron, speaking to Juan for the first time, asks what a "faggot" is and if he is one, while another scene simply allows his facial expression to give almost unnoticeable hints of satisfaction after playing rough and tumble with a male friend. The way Chiron forms these connections in the film's first segment is a wonder to behold, a portrayal of isolation turning into friendship that feels both melancholic and optimistic.

We watch as Chiron begins the film with a dawning realisation of who he is in regards to his sexuality, then see him explore it for the first time as a teenager in a scene so beautifully played out in every way that it's almost as if time stops for it. We finally watch him reflect back on his first experience with that same man as an adult, and come face to face with the man that Chiron has become after desperately longing to understand himself for so many years. Moonlight never goes overboard, never making any large statement at all. In an era where Hollywood is criticised for its lack of black characters and lack of gay characters, a film focusing on a man that combines both could feel like a cry for attention. But it doesn't. Moonlight's self control is remarkable.

As well as the intimacy of the film's documentation of sexuality, it also tackles other themes of masculinity and race. But rather than look at each of these ideals individually, Jenkins instead brings them all under one umbrella and lets them play out almost all at once. Moonlight is a film about identity. It looks at what it means to be who you are in a culture that doesn't understand you, and what it can mean when someone finally makes you feel accepting of yourself, even if for the briefest of moments. As Chiron sits on the beach with Kevin (played wonderfully at that stage by Jharrel Jerome), he talks in a single sentence about how sometimes he cries so much he feels as if he could dissolve in his own tears. It's a stark statement to make, but it works in the moment.

The film's focus on water is also a powerful way of bringing the three separate years together. In one of the film's most engaging sequences, Chiron is taught how to swim by Juan in the opening chapter. Later, his first sexual act takes place on a beach in the moonlight while the tide slowly comes in, and we finally open the film's last chapter with Chiron soaking his face in a sink of icy water, before later talking about how water is the only thing he drinks now.

The three actors playing Chiron reportedly never met during the film's production (which gives the three stages of the film even more unique poeticism), but Moonlight's delicate handling of its thematic content is what guides you through Chiron's life. The film is perfectly performed across the board (Mahershala Ali is a standout, as are Naome Harris and André Holland in the film's last act particularly) and its cinematography is so reflective of the film's characters and their mindframes that the whole thing comes together to form an almost perfect whole. As the camera spirals around Chiron during a pivotal scene near the end of the second act, supporting characters fall in and out of focus, as if Chiron is leaving them behind and disconnecting even from those he thought he'd found hope in.

The subtlety of the script is also appreciated, never spoon-feeding information - characters die between the segments, and we're informed through one offbeat line that could easily go unheard. Moonlight demands attention, and with its focus on masculinity and sexuality and identity, it earns it. This is a film we so rarely see in cinemas, and it's one that proves there is a place for it. What Barry Jenkins has achieved here is monumental - a film for the ages. This is breathtaking and breathless cinema.

In A Sentence

The superbly acted and immensely powerful Moonlight tells a coming-of-age story in a delicate and uniquely moving way thanks to Barry Jenkins' astonishingly controlled direction.

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