Moonlight is a coming-of-age drama that chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he tries to cope against the flow of everyday adversities while growing up in a rough Miami neighbourhood. The film deals with a range of negative social themes such as: drugs, bullying and gangsterism. Ordinarily, these hard living themes would translate into a gritty and difficult-to-watch film, but this is the magic of Moonlight, turning the ugliness of real-life into a thing of luminescent beauty.
Director Barry Jenkins has composed an elegant drama that treats all of its subjects with great dignity and respect in spite of their transgressions. This is a very human experience, viewed from a non-judgemental perspective and powered home by an ensemble of equally sincere performances. Mahershala Ali's towering performance is tough yet heartfelt, and he manages to captain a strong ensemble of performances, despite his limited screen time. The lead role is played by three fine actors, namely Alex R. Hibbert as Little, Ashton Sanders as Chiron and Trevante Rhodes as Black. All the while, the mercurial Naomie Harris tries to keep them in check as troubled mother, Paula.
Richard Linklater delivered a similar coming-of-age film about a white lower middle-class Texan boy approaching adulthood with docudrama realism. While Moonlight doesn't enjoy the continuity of having a single actor as its lead like Boyhood, the casting is convincing and the chapters are equally realistic. There is a poetry and sombre depth to this filmmaking, which transcends other dramas with its natural ebb and flow, maintaining a curious tension as we revisit a character whose neighbourhood, family and social constraints have shaped him. While the realm is harsh, the heart is tender, turning this drama into a deeply moving, subtle and beautiful piece of cinema.
Jenkins could have used this platform to launch a scathing attack on race and sexual politics in America. However, he's taken a much more gentle approach in relaying his message, using a lens of acceptance to help shape attitudes. By presenting a vicarious and disarming experience of what it must be like to grow up poor, black and gay, we are forced to either empathise or reflect on our own prejudices. This makes Moonlight powerful in the way it can touch your soul and haunting as its pure elegance sinks into your bones.
As a low-budget drama, this film speaks volumes and is a testament to great writing, fine casting and visionary direction. Its multitude of Best Picture awards are important in demonstrating that art can trump budget and it serves as a huge inspiration for budding filmmakers around the world. One can only hope that the widespread attention it has received as a result of the award season will convert into people taking the time to see it.
The bottom line: Luminous