Film review: Moonlight

David Gritten / 17 February 2017

David Gritten reviews Moonlight, currently hailed as one of the year’s best films.

The story of screenwriter-director Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight is an affecting one. Chiron, a young African-American boy grows up in the 1980s in a precarious world: Miami’s mean streets, where crime is rife and drug dealers prowl on street corners. Through three separate acts we see the boy, first from childhood into adolescence, and then full adulthood. It’s clear from the outset that the boy is gay, which only compounds his problems and isolates him.

Moonlight is intelligently written and beautifully shot (by cinematographer James Laxton). It’s also a breakthrough of sorts: how often do you see a film with a gay black American as its central character? Yet for all its virtues – and possibly its significance – some of the adulation for Moonlight feels excessive.

Still, it starts outstandingly, with Chiron at 10 (played by Alex Hibbert), who lives with his erratic mother (Naomie Harris) but is taken under the kindly wing of the imposing Juan, a prosperous, influential figure in the neighbourhood. Juan is played by the mesmerising Mahershala Ali, who fans of the TV series House of Cards may recall as the suave political hustler Remy Danton. Juan genuinely cares for Chiron, who at this stage of his life is known as ‘Little,’ lacks a father and is almost too intimidated even to speak. A lovely scene in which the brawny, charismatic Juan teaches the boy to swim may be the most powerful in the film.

Still, it turns out Juan has a singular flaw, and after this first act, he disappears from the story – which feels diminished without him. As a teenager Chiron (now played by the excellent Ashton Sanders) is bullied at school for being effeminate, and finally learns to hit back at his oppressors. His mother’s drug habit is worsening – Britain’s Naomie Harris is a fine actress, but hers is easily the film’s most thinly-drawn character – and Chiron feels isolated, apart from one romantic interlude with Kevin, another boy in his class.

As a young adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes), now a muscular drug dealer who goes by the nickname ‘Black,’ has moved to Atlanta and looks very much like a younger version of Juan. One night out of the blue he gets a call from Kevin, who invites him back to Miami to eat at the restaurant where he works as a cook. There is a quiet reunion between the two school friends – at last, a mellow note for Moonlight.

It’s a worthwhile piece of film-making that deserves much of the attention heaped upon it. It’s also a timely work, stressing the notion that black lives matter – a theme recently (and belatedly) taken up by America’s film industry. But you can approve of a movie without asserting that it’s head and shoulders above anything else you’ll see this year. Manage your expectations, and you may well be absorbed by it.

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