The Oscars are just around the corner and the film world has been cleaved in two between awards hopefuls and everything else. Spare a thought for The Founder and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, soon to be taking the unending stroll into ignominy, purely for being overlooked by the Academy Awards’ voters. There is still one major nominee – Moonlight – yet to hit UK cinemas, and from the critical buzz, it may be the best of the lot.
Barry Jenkins’ new film tells the story of Chiron, a young black kid living in a tough suburb of Miami. We meet Chiron, nicknamed Little, being chased by the other boys of the block into an abandoned flat. Here he meets local drug dealer Juan, and the two strike up a father-son bond. Back at home, however, problems are afoot as Chiron’s mother Paula (monstrously played by Naomie Harris) is frantically descending into heroin addiction, supplied by the runners Juan supports.
We next find Chiron in his teens. The young man is bullied at school and faces abuse at home. Life is bleak apart from his continued friendship with Terrell, an old companion from childhood. On a deserted Miami beach one night, the two begin a romantic relationship. The affair is short-lived, however, as events at school force the pair into conflict. The film’s third and final act moves on nearly a decade again and supplies another twists. Chiron is now a drug dealer named “Black”, operating the streets of Atlanta. He returns to Miami to see his mother and has a brief encounter with his former lover.
The story of a young, black, working-class kid growing up outside the New York-LA American axis, Moonlight is obviously a largely unique film – especially for mainstream Hollywood distribution. We so rarely get the chance to see projects like this, let alone in a local Vue or Cineworld. That Barry Jenkins’ picture handles its subject matter with poetry, subtlety and genuine drama is even more remarkable. Let’s just say it – this is the best film of this Oscar year.
The film hangs together on a series of sublime performances from Moonlight’s trio of central actors. Despite being split across three different time periods and three different shoots, Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes manage to create a single character out of Chiron, arguably more believable and consistent than Ellar Coltrane’s twelve year portrayal of Mason in Boyhood. Little mannerisms—side-ways glances, long stares, half-smiles—permeate across the three time periods, constantly hinting at the legacy of Chiron’s past and it’s continued affect on the present. Rhodes delivers a particularly astounding display, seamlessly moving between the tough, charismatic Black in Atlanta, to the uncertain Chiron returning to his hometown – it’s arguably the best performance of the year, despite being only half an hour long.
The creation of Chiron clearly owes a large debt to the guidance of Jenkins, and the director manages to extract similarly immense performances from Mahersala Ali, Naomie Harris and the lesser-known Andre Holland. The poise and nuance of the Miami-born film-makers’ camera work – aided by cinematographer James Laxton, formerly of Tusk and Camp X-Ray – is astounding for a second feature, and transforms Moonlight from an interesting social introspection into a stunning piece of poetic cinema. The film’s opening shot lasts close to 5 minutes and swirls around Juan, its subject, like a tornado, disorientating the audience with the madness of its movement. It sets up the proceeding two hours of unique camera angles and shot-constructions that transform the dull-brown American hum-drum into a bristling, and at times magical, environment.
To repeat, this is a film about a young, black, gay, working-class protagonist being shown in multiplexes and running for Academy Awards. The importance of these facts cannot be understated. Moonlight offers an even-handed and clear-eyed look at the problems at the route of American social and racial inequality in a way that feels desperately urgent, without ever appearing mawkish. The final moments are some the most tantalising and subtle in recent cinema. This is the must-watch of the year, if not the last few years – and you’d be a fool to miss it.
Catch Moonlight at cinemas worldwide from 17 February.