Starring: Mahershala Ali, Shariff Earp, Duan Sanderson, Alex R. Hibbert, Naomie Harris
Directed by: Barry Jenkins
Running time: 111 mins
UK Release Date: February 16th 2017
Sometimes you need to slow down. The Oscar-nominated films this year are, for the most part, breezy, pacy affairs, which tell their stories at some speed. This is quite the opposite, and with eight Oscar nods it shows sometimes doing the opposite to everyone else can pay off.
The ‘plot’ is a coming of age story for a boy, Chiron (initially called ‘Little’), living in a poor part of Miami, bullied at school and with a crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris). While the story follows Chiron in chronological order through three stages of his life – boy, student, adult – that suggests a straightforward narrative, which isn’t quite what the film delivers. Moonlight is really an extended mood piece, with very little dialogue – Chiron barely says 10 words through the whole film, and other characters say not much more.
It’s a dreamy, elegiac look at growing up and discovering the world and your own sexuality. Little knows he is different, and befriends a man (Mahershala Ali) who teaches him how to swim, and also gives him the confidence to be his own person. Chiron is bullied by schoolkids who believe he is gay, but he finds a way to fight back. For such a gritty setting it’s a remarkably dreamy, even poetic film, which revels in characters slowly walking on beaches, gazing up at blue skies and staring into each other’s eyes. It might sound precious but it’s not – every word of that Spartan script carries huge weight, and every scene is there for a reason.
The acting is a huge part of the reason it pays off. The British Harris remarkably filmed her scenes in three days while she was publicising the Bond film Spectre, and has ended up with an Oscar nomination for her trouble. Initially she comes across as a slightly stereotypical crack addict, eyes bulging, forehead sweating and arms clenched, but a late scene with Chiron, now an adult, packs a huge emotional wallop. Ali as the kindly stranger who saves Little from school bullies and gives him a purpose, is also worth his nod, he’s effortlessly good. And the three actors who portray Chiron at different stages of his life are all equally good.
Overall verdict: If you want a pacy drama with plenty of action or dialogue you’re in the wrong place here. If, however, you want to lose yourself in some adolescent dreaminess do yourself a favour and give this a chance. It demands some work, but it pays off in spades.
Reviewer: Mike Martin