Beautifully structured and elegantly restrained, Barry Jenkins’ deceptively simple three act coming of age drama packs a powerful emotional punch as we follow Chiron, a disaffected young black man growing up and struggling with his identity and sexuality in suburban Miami.
Throughout each of the acts, assaying a different period of Chiron’s life, we’re treated to the raw cruelty of a life blighted by drugs and gang violence counterpointed poignantly with unexpected moments of tenderness such as the entirely unexpected kindness of Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who finds young Chiron (Alex Hibbert) hiding from a gang of school bullies in an abandoned apartment. We see the gross injustice of a life spent fleeing the animalistic pack hunting of his bullying classmates turns to his own punishment for finally marshalling the courage to strike back.
Heart-breaking and affecting, this is artful and personal filmmaking, a dignified exploration of masculinity, society and sexuality.
Simultaneously dreamy and earthy, the cinematography and use of light, both natural and harsh neon hues, lend the film a distinctive palette, helping to define and connect the three stages of Chiron’s life.
While Mahershala Ali may have taken all the plaudits (and the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) for his first act turn as drug dealer turned mentor Juan, it’s Naomie Harris who impressed for me, her performance nothing short of transformative. The three actors who bring Chiron to life (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) are fantastic, each bringing their own interpretation and yet recognisably the same person, still the damaged young man despite having grown hard and focussed, sculpted in his physique and adorned with gleaming gold grills.
“Moonlight” is a timely and vital film, a meditation on the brutality and tenderness of life. It may not be the most entertaining or easy watching of the Best Picture nominees, but it’s easy to see why it’s worthy of being crowned the best.