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Moonlight - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: A
Acting: A
Writing: A
Cinematography: A
Editing: A

Tired of the endless parade of movies featuring straight white men? Boy howdy, is this the movie for you! But it's also so much more than a token example of multiple levels of diversity. This is a quiet movie with deep impact, a movie with little action but massive strength, with an ensemble cast where each performance is as memorable as any other.

I mean, it's still true, a movie like this would deserve attention even if it weren't excellent: the entire cast is nonwhite, and the story doesn't pander in any way. The trailer seems slightly coy about the fact that it's basically a love story between two men, although whether both men could be considered gay is perhaps up for debate.

What may be most impressive about Moonlight is the consistency of talent onscreen, regardless of age. Studio executives are notorious for hemming and hawing about the bankability of what they see as "diversity" films -- of even films with too many women, for Christ's sake -- but when it comes to child actors, that's where the real gamble resides. But the two main characters here are each portrayed by three different actors. The first set is prepubescent and the second is a couple of teenagers. All four of them are just as good as the grown men who portray them in the final third of the film -- which is to say, all six of them are excellent.

The central character is Chiron (pronounced "Shy-rone"), although the three parts are all named after him, and "Chirone" is the title of the middle part. In the first, he is nicknamed "Little." Little is portrayed by Alex R. Hibbert, with a nuance rarely seen among child actors. This is when he first meets Kevin (Jaden Piner), a boy who challenges him to stand up to his many bullies at school.

Kevin is almost incidental in the first third, though, as Chiron meets the grown man, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who happens to be a neighborhood drug dealer. Juan and his gentle and caring wife Teresa (Janelle Monáe) wind up being surrogate parents for Chiron, as Chiron's mother (Naomie Harris) is an inattentive drug addict.

Moonlight moves at a relatively slow pace, but it is dense with meaning and impact. The film's best scene is in the first third, with Chiron sitting at Juan and Teresa's dining room table, Chiron asking the question, "What's a faggot?" The conversation ultimately pivots from there to Juan's connection to Chiron's mother's drug use, and I haven't seen another scene in any other movie this year so well written, acted, or directed. Your heart breaks for all three of the people sitting at that table.

The story jumps forward to Chiron as a teenager, now played by Ashton Sanders, still contending with bullies at school. He happens upon Kevin again, now played by Jharrel Jerome. The two accidentally meet late at night at the beach, which is where the movie's one approximation of a sex scene occurs. This is a kind of physical intimacy not often portrayed on film, but Barry Jenkins, who both wrote and directed this movie, presents it with both subtlety and tastefulness.

The subsequent conflict involves Kevin getting goaded by the bullies into beating Kevin: a "game" they play, which Kevin must do if he doesn't want the shit kicked out of himself. It's high school politics, which Chiron faces with defiance.

And then, it's a decade later: twentysomething Chiron is now played by Trevante Rhodes; Kevin by André Holland. Both command attention onscreen, but if anyone in this film were to deserve an Oscar nomination, it would be Rhodes. To be sure, Moonlight deserves accolades on all fronts, but in the acting category it's always a challenge with an ensemble cast. I won't say anything more about where Chiron and Kevin go from here -- I'm sure many would say I've told too much of the story already -- but suffice it to say that this is a story well worth the time.

Moonlight is a movie that takes its time revealing exactly what's going on, but once it becomes clear, the need for taking this journey there is well understood. I can't think of anything to criticize this movie for, which is a rare thing indeed. Well, I suppose you could note that it doesn't pass the Bechdel Test, but given the nature of this story, that's a little unfair. Even as a story about men, Moonlight still features two very strong female characters, and although they never speak to each other, neither of their dialogue is focused on their men -- it's almost always focused on Chiron.

And with said focus, Moonlight is a unique cinematic achievement, let alone a unique cinematic experience. It doesn't just deserve to be seen. It must be seen. No better movie has been released this year.

Ashton Sanders is just one of many who shine in MOONLIGHT.

Overall: A
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