Barring dodgy back-handers or any sort of political manoeuvring, Oscar-winning films tend to need to have something truly exceptional about them in order to carry away the biggest? cinematic prize of them all.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight definitely has something about it, but whether it’s a sufficient something for it to be lauded as the finest film of this latest Oscar year is another thing altogether. I suspect this may well be a bone of contention for some.
A coming-of-age story, Moonlight traces the formative years of Chiron – also known as Little and Black – (Ashton Sanders, and latterly, Trevante Rhodes), a young African-American kid from Miami who, as if growing up is not hard enough, must do so with an increasing self-awareness that he is gay. Such a scenario would be less of a burden to him were he being brought up within some kind of supportive family structure, but with no father on the scene, and an unpredictable, unstable drug addict for a mother, Chiron’s passage from childhood into adulthood is turbulent to say the least.
An outsider, looking in on others’ apparently happier lives, Chiron longs to be accepted and struggles to fit in; very much the omega male of the pack.
Even when he does find people that may offer him the apparent security and stability that he craves, more often than not, such friendships and acquaintances are tainted, with considerable strings attached. The paternal concern of surrogate fatherly figure of sorts, Juan (the excellent Mahershala Ali) – who, along with his partner Teresea (Janelle Monáe), offer the young Chiron respite and sanctuary from a turbulent home life, only for Juan later to be disgraced, revealed as Chiron’s mother’s drug dealer – being a particular case in point.
Chiron has grown up to be a boy of few words. Reluctant to voice an opinion. Maybe having been discouraged by those that really should know better? Or perhaps unconvinced that he even has a voice within an ever confusing world? Yet it’s obvious that behind his wall of silence there is a boy that’s desperate to break free and find his place in the world.
Bullied and ostracised from his peer group, Chiron’s life is an unhappy one, but a brief glimpse of happiness and inspiration is to be found through a chance encounter and dalliance one evening on an empty beach. Here, in a moment of sexual awakening, class mate Kevin (Jharrel Jerome, and latterly a scene-stealing performance from André Holland), finally enables Chiron to embrace the boy that he really is, and needs to be – even if for just the most fleeting of moments.
Whole new horizons of hope briefly heave into view, under the moonlight, but for a working class African-American kid from a background where vulnerability and sensitivity will always be usurped by machismo, being true to oneself seems a rather unattainable dream. There seems a depressingly pre-determined life pathway along which Chiron must tread, something that only he can change.
There’s an omnipresent sense of melancholia and unfulfilment that pervades most of Moonlight’s characters, in one way or another. Whatever dreams or ideals each of them may have clutched to at some point in their lives, seem largely to have been abandoned; swept away by the harsh realities of life.
With understated yet powerful performances right across the board, and with substantial space and time afforded each character to breathe and slowly develop, Moonlight is every bit a smouldering, brooding character study, into which much can and should be read. A mood piece exposing the inconsistencies and fragility of its characters, laying bare our fear to embrace change or to be in some way different, and above all, demonstrating the protective barriers that we can’t help but erect in our attempts to shield ourselves from life’s hardships and complexity.
Whilst there have arguably been superior films this Oscar year just past, Moonlight resonates on a deep and true level, and is undoubtedly a fine piece. Both soulful and thought-provoking, I suspect it will continue to reveal and reward us the more it is re-visited.