Moonlight Review: When Poetry Speaks More Truthfully Than Realism

We watch films for many reasons - to laugh, to cry, to be awed, to be provoked. At their root, though, films exist to make us connect. They take us deep into the lives of people we might never ordinarily engage with, and compel us to empathise. There are few better examples of this than Moonlight, a film so human you’d think the reels themselves had a heartbeat.

A tender, aching portrait of a black man’s adolescence in an impoverished district of Miami, Moonlight follows Chiron at three stages in his life: first as a boy, then as a teenager and finally as a man. The three actors sharing the role are superb. Young Alex Hibbert barely says 20 words but is mesmerising, laying the foundations of this sensitive, painfully closed-off boy while James Laxton’s fluid cinematography shows the wonders and dangers of Liberty City through a child’s eyes.

As the teenager grappling with his sexuality, Ashton Sanders conveys the tension of somebody teetering on the precipice between being themselves and submitting to a hostile world. Then comes the grown-up Chiron, sporting grills and lifting weights in an effort to be what the world expects of him. Trevante Rhodes captures the constant conflict between the outer shell and the inner man to devastating effect, making Chiron so ill-at-ease with himself that even his muscles seem as though they don’t fit properly.

Although it taps into universal themes, with its three chapters ensuring that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, Moonlight keeps a tight focus. It is all about passing interactions and the things left unsaid. It swerves past clichés - we see guns and drugs, but there are no shoot-outs or gang clashes. Chiron’s world might be tough, but it is filled with beauty and small intimacies.

Moonlight avoids the gritty realism some might expect, opting for a poetic visual and narrative style that somehow speaks more truthfully

Commendably, director Barry Jenkins never over-explains this world. Drawing on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, he presents Liberty City honestly, flanked by the lilting waves of the Atlantic and populated by characters getting through life as best as they can. These characters, likewise, are never patronised. In fact, out of the entire cast there is not a single decent performance - all are uniformly fantastic. Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe excel as a couple who provide refuge to the oft-neglected Chiron, with Ali digging past conventional tropes to reveal a tender would-be father figure.

Naomie Harris, meanwhile, is a revelation as Chiron’s crack-riddled mother, whose kernels of affection are too few and far between, yet whose own keenly felt struggles prevent her from being a one-note terrible parent. Dropping in and out of his life, these various figures show the contrasting influences playing out upon Chiron - the hate that threatens to subsume him, and the love that could offer redemption.

These result in a mosaic of gut-punch moments. There’s Ali confronting Harris about her drug use only for her to rebuff him for being a dealer, or the young Chiron asking if he is a ‘faggot’. However, Moonlight avoids the gritty realism some might expect, opting for a poetic visual and narrative style that somehow speaks more truthfully to Chiron’s battle for identity.

Some films stick in your mind because of their emotional heft. Others linger thanks to their potent tone or brilliant performances. Moonlight has all of these things, but the element that really makes it stay with you - in fact, the thing that makes you not want to leave it - is its sheer human empathy. In this respect, Moonlight epitomises the best of what film can be; something that, in this day and age, is needed more than ever.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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