By Adam Ray Palmer
I went along to the buzzing Phoenix cinema in Leicester on Tuesday night to catch the newly crowned ‘Best Picture’ at the Oscars 48 hours previous.
I chose against catching Moonlight at festivals last year… don’t ask me why… so I was playing catch up with Barry Jenkins’ powerful piece.
With many awards in the bag, my expectation was high. Surely, it’s not better than La La Land?
Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age drama Moonlight chronicles the the childhood, adolescence and burgeoning adulthood of a young black man named Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Saunders & Trevante Rhodes) growing up in a rough neighbourhood of Miami.
I’d heard nothing but great things about Moonlight; all the critics I admire are huge fans and it bagged a few Oscars on Sunday night. So, imagine the feeling when I left the theatre thinking La La Land had been cheated. That sounds like a strong sentence, but of course, La La Land won the ‘big one’ for all of 30 seconds.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s very little wrong with Moonlight; I just feel La La Land is the masterpiece that deserved the recognition with the golden statuette. Anyway, at least you all know now which camp I am in for this very calm and collected ‘battle’ between Moonlight and La La Land. But you’re not here for that, you’re here for my Moonlight review… I hope!
I think 2016 was an incredible year for cinema. There were strong films that had powerful messages and made a connection with so many people – Moonlight is another movie to add to that list. Jenkins’ ‘best picture’ deals with intense issues including growing up with a drug-addict mother in extreme poverty, criminality, bullying and prison time. At the core of Moonlight, it tells a story of a young man exploring and discovering his sexuality in a neighbourhood, if not a world, that feels uncontrolled and isolated.
At the heart of Moonlight, along with the exceptional directing and writing, are phenomenal performances. Oscar-winning Mahershala Ali has taken many plaudits over the awards season and rightly so. He runs the streets of his neighbourhood making money from the drug-addicted citizens, but he also has a paternal side which he shows to Little (Alex R. Hibbert). He’s on screen for 30 minutes or so, but he impacts the film greatly and leaves his mark.
The same can be said for Naomie Harris, rewarded by an Oscar nod, and the fantastic Janelle Monáe. These two talented actresses are the only ladies seen on screen in a supporting role. I like how Barry has utilised the two with Janelle playing the caring and doting mother role, without having a child, and Harris playing the actual mother but cares more about when her next drug hit is.
Moonlight is anchored by profoundly striking performances by the three leads as Chiron. The trio of versions are as impressive as each other. Trevante Rhodes is spectacular in his role as the older Chiron. His scenes in the diner near the end of the film in particular are haunting as he visibly shows the audience his anguish and longingness for love with hardly saying a word.
Barry Jenkins expertly mans the ship here. There’s minimal action to get to grips with so he must work hard on delivering sequences subtly. The three stages of Chiron’s life seem to roll on well and the viewer stays connected – perhaps a stronger climax would have been welcomed as I wanted a bit more.
Jenkins’ has one mission in Moonlight; to break down social barriers and character clichés -he does this. In the two-hour runtime, we see a drug-addled mother who loves her son dearly but can’t resist temptation, we see a neighbourhood drug-lord who also looks out for a youth for no reason at all, and we have burly twentysomething who is a closeted gay ex-con who longs for affection. Jenkins juggles the aforementioned themes confidently and delivers a movie that will be a beacon for those on a difficult journey discovering who they are.
Overall, I enjoyed Moonlight. I prefer La La Land and that will always have my ‘2016 movie heart’ but you can’t compare the two. Both films give you similar messages of compassion and perseverance with La La Land opting to give you fluffy version as Moonlight opts for the real-life gritty method – both pack a punch. One thing is clear in Barry’s drama: your prosperity doesn’t characterise you.
Cineroom’s Rating: 4 Stars
Moonlight is screening for the next two weeks at Phoenix Leicester – Certificate 15.