‘Moonlight:’ a quiet but powerfully immersive portrayal of life

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 1/31/17 12:10am

British film critic Mark Kermode once said of “Pan’s Labyrinth” that if a film that good were to be released every 10 years, then he would happily carry on being a critic forever. That notion has guided me throughout my efforts in film criticism and has always been a reminder that I write reviews not because I wish to lambast terrible films, but because sharing my love for a truly exceptional piece of filmmaking is amongst my greatest pleasures.

If you were to look back at my reviews for The Dartmouth, you might notice that I have yet to award a single film a perfect 10 out of 10. In my mind, that recognition is reserved for the kind of film to which Kermode is referring — the transcendent cinematic experience that instantly cements itself as a permanent resident on my list of the greatest films ever made. That streak ends today because “Moonlight” is such a film.

“Moonlight” doesn’t have a story — it has three. Even then, the word “story” can only be applied in the loosest sense. Each part of the film highlights moments in the life of Chiron, a gay African-American man growing up in Miami, Florida. Not “important” or “dramatic” moments — just moments during his childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

We see Chiron (Alex Hibbert) as a child, near-silent and searching for a parent figure who can fill the role better than his drug-addicted mother (Naomie Harris). As a teenager, Chiron, now played by Ashton Sanders, attempts to come to terms with his sexual orientation. And as an adult, Chiron, played by Trevante Rhodes, is a drug dealer forced to deal with the pains of past.

What I have just described may sound like a plot, but the film is really a series of beautiful and tragic moments centered around themes of race, sexuality and identity. The film has already received considerable media attention, and undoubtedly will continue to do so, for its honest and profoundly compassionate portrayal of a complex character.

Not only are people of Chiron’s race and sexual orientation shamefully underrepresented in modern cinema, but given our current political climate, this film feels like a necessary counterbalance, a reminder that all people, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation, deserve to be treated with immense respect.

That being said, to reduce “Moonlight” to a social or political statement undermines its power as a work of art. Fundamentally, it is a film about real human beings and real human issues. It never shies away from the struggles that someone like Chiron would inevitably face, yet it’s not depressing in the traditional sense. Much of the story is reportedly based on the lives of Barry Jenkins, the director, and Tarell Alvin McCraney, the writer, and indeed the film often feels more real than most biopics.

Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes work seamlessly together to create a complete character. Hibbert manages to embody both the innocence of childhood as well as the immense scars of an abusive home life, while Sanders finds a way to play “doesn’t quite fit in” without ever relying on clichés. And Rhodes is uncanny in his ability to take the character in a direction we don’t necessarily expect without losing the core qualities that make Chiron such a singular protagonist. His quietness is his defining character trait, and all three actors wield their silence like a sword, allowing the absence of dialogue to speak volumes.

Harris takes what could have been a stock character and elevates her, layering her performance with an unexpected poignancy. Janelle Monáe and André Holland also bring surprising depth to small roles. They never feel like they’re playing a part. But the real scene-stealer is Mahershala Ali, who, like Harris, is currently nominated for an Academy Award. His portrayal of Juan, a drug dealer and mentor for young Chiron, is never showy but his performance is unforgettable, balancing benevolence and tragic hypocrisy.

Jenkins’ directing is at once mesmerizing and understated, just as his extensive use of long takes can sometimes be flashy and sometimes subtle. With an evocative use of colors and lightning, the film is gorgeous to watch, sometimes conveying realism and sometimes opting for pure stylism. The visual effects are elevated by Nicholas Britell’s eerie score, which never sounds like a typical film score with its unconventional sounds that perfectly match the visuals.

When the final shot of “Moonlight” cut to black, I wasn’t exactly sure how to feel. In this case, I think that’s the sign of a great film. The best stories run the emotional gamut, so that at the end, you’re not entirely certain which emotion you want to settle on. That indescribable mixture of emotions is among the most powerful ways to reflect the human experience.

This is the best film of 2016. Moreover, it’s one of the best films so far this century. “Moonlight” deserves to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. But it may not win, and that’s okay, too. Because 20 or 30 years from now, when all else is forgotten, “Moonlight” will still be remembered.

I am a white, cisgender, heterosexual male from a middle class background. In many ways, that is the definition of privilege. I will never know what it is like to be a member of a number of groups that have been historically discriminated against and continue to this day to face oppression. I do, however, think I have a responsibility to help if I can, to try to do the right thing. But I also need to listen — listen to the people who have and will experience things that I never will. Watching a movie like “Moonlight” is one small way to listen; cinema allows us to crawl inside the skins of different people and experience a sliver of their lives. Trust me, “Moonlight” is worth listening to.

Rating: 10/10

“Moonlight” will be playing at 7 p.m. on Feb. 17 in Spaulding Auditorium.