Film Review: Moonlight (USA, 2016) is a stunningly beautiful character study; a modern masterpiece

Two young African American males sit on a beach together, bathed in moonlight. One asks the other: “You cry?”. The other replies, “I cry so much sometimes, I feel like I’ma turn to drops,”. Ripped from the pages of the play Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, this scene for me perfectly sums up everything there is to love about the play’s adaptation, Moonlight: honest, raw, beautiful – this is a stunningly beautiful character study unlike any you’ve seen before.

Moonlight is the story of Chiron, who we meet in three incarnations: first, as a young boy, “Little”, then as a teenager, “Chiron”, and finally as a young man, “Black”. Along the way, we see how society and his circumstances mould him into the man he becomes, and how his relationships with others at once confuses and affirms who he is and what he wants to be. Growing up with Chiron is Kevin, and we see how their relationship develops over the years, as we do with Chiron’s drug addled mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), as well as the unexpected matriarch and patriarch in his life – played by Janelle Monáe and Mahershala Ali.

Taken out of the playbook of a Gus Van Sant or Jim Jarmusch film, Moonlight is an indie film which never paces itself for a mainstream audience. Rather, writer and director Barry Jenkins gives his characters room to grow and breathe, while never taking advantage of our patience, nor deliberately confounding his viewers. The viewing experience is, as a result, a compelling one. The script masterfully moves through time, adding in just enough information about the time unseen so we can fill in the gaps. Jenkins has directed his leads well to help with this, especially considering the different age iterations of the two main characters never met each other while filming.

Though the performances are outstanding throughout, particular mention has to be given to Janelle Monae, who shows herself to be quite the talent – and is sorely missed in the film’s third act – while Naomie Harris is more than deserving of her Oscar nomination. As is Mahershala Ali, who also gives a stellar performance (no surprises there), though his time on screen is brief. But really this is a film which lives or dies by the performances of its 6 leads – the three actors who play Chiron and Kevin. And they portray their parts beautifully.

There’s nothing about this film that feels forced; nobody is preaching to you. This is simply an honest portrayal of a character who we grow to like, even love – perhaps relate to. He’s someone who has had life thrown at him in some terrible ways, and there’s a realism to it that makes the feel equally affecting and approachable. And there’s something about it all that makes it feel important, too.

While it may feel like trying times right now in the world, the fact that Moonlight is a cinematically released, critical sensation, shows just how far we’ve come from a time. Not that long ago, having African Americans on screen was seen as a taboo in itself. Let alone a story about two young men of colour who are discovering themselves, exploring their feelings and their sexuality, amongst the often harsh backdrop of their lives. But this is not a movie about colour. This is not a gay movie. This is not a straight movie. This is not a film about colour. This is not a film about poverty. This is not a film about adolescence, drug use or sexuality. This is a film about all of these things and more, because it is a film about humanity – with all its complexities and simplicities. All its clarity and confusion. All its joy and tragedy. And in striking all these facets so successfully, Barry Jenkins has created nothing short of a modern masterpiece.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Moonlight opens in cinemas tomorrow, 26th January 2017.