Film review - Moonlight: Desolate beauty in the projects
Oscar-nominated drama by Barry Jenkins is challenging but truly unmissable
Nothing breaks your heart quite so much as watching a child get bullied, and in the opening scene of Moonlight, a young boy appears to be running for his life. Chased by a gang of his classmates through a predominantly black Miami housing project, eight-year-old Chiron (Alex Hibbert) takes shelter in an abandoned house that's used as a crack den. There he cowers until a deep voice asks him to open the door: when Chiron does nothing, the boards are ripped off the window, and a large black man steps in.
He looks tough, and, in fact, is a prominent local crack dealer himself, but Juan (Mahershala Ali) will become an unlikely saviour for Chiron, and a kindly presence in his otherwise blighted young life. Juan is perhaps the biggest but not the only surprise in Moonlight, a bleak but beautiful film that subverts the 'ghetto' cliches at every opportunity, forcing us to consider addicts, pushers, bullies and victims as people rather than stereotypes.
Barry Jenkins' film is based on an unproduced autobiographical play by Tarell McCraney, who grew up in the Liberty City projects in Miami. So did Jenkins, and the film is both intensely personal and oddly, almost mystically, transcendent.
Moonlight is told in three chapters, with different actors playing Chiron as boy, youth and man: that might sound arch, even artificial, but Jenkins very skilfully uses this framing device to show how the individual is knocked and changed by a cruel and indifferent environment. Because Chiron is gay, the ultimate sign of weakness for some of his classmates, and to make matters worse, his single mother is a drug addict.
Paula (Naomie Harris) lives in a descending spiral of domestic chaos, and alternates between fiercely smothering her lonely son and angrily ignoring him. And later, her habit will lead her down ever darker paths.
When Juan finds him, Chiron is at a low ebb, but the quiet, swaggering dealer takes him home, feeds him and introduces him to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), who'll become a sort of alternate mother figure.
In a film full of visually extraordinary sequences, the most striking is the moment when Juan decides to teach Chiron how to swim, and holds him floating in the Atlantic swell looking like a latter-day John the Baptist. Drug dealers don't swim, do they?
This one does, but Juan's profession is a risky one, and Chiron won't always be able to depend on him. As a teenager, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) has withdrawn even further into himself, his relationship with his mother has pretty much collapsed and he's bullied and beaten at school. He tries keeping his head down and ignoring the abuse, but eventually he'll be pushed into a response that changes his life forever.
In Moonlight's third chapter, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has emulated Juan in the worst possible way by becoming a pusher himself. He dresses tough and represses his sexuality, but no one can do that forever.
Time and again during Moonlight, Barry Jenkins challenges our received notions about ghetto life. Early on, he uses classical music rather than hip-hop to jar us out of our cultural stupors and consider without prejudice characters like Juan and Paula. Harris is superb as Chiron's mother, a broken woman who doesn't always let her addiction overwhelm her better instincts: she'll give Viola Davis a run for her money at the Oscars.
Also Oscar-nominated, Mahershala Ali says little as the kindly drug dealer Juan, but his face speaks volumes. Confronted with a small boy in crisis, he's initially amused by the child, and seems to be toying with the notion of being a father. But pretty soon he takes the role seriously, and displays a rare talent for paying attention and listening, which is mostly what children want. And when Chiron wonders aloud if he is gay, Juan stares at him for a time, then says "you don't have to decide that yet". No child psychologist could have offered sounder advice.
Films coming soon...
Patriot's Day (Mark Wahlberg, JK Simmons, John Goodman, Michelle Monaghan); A Cure for Wellness (Dane DeHaan, Mia Goth); It's Only the End of the World (Marion Cotillard, Lea Seydoux, Gaspard Ulliel, Vincent Cassel).