Moonlight ★★★★★

A Manchester by the Sea/Moonlight double didn't do much for my emotional well-being but it did wonders for my love of film. While lacking the gut-punch of loss and sorrow of the former, Moonlight subtly and gradually tugs at the heartstrings, then ultimately tears them out and stomps them into the dirt.

This is a film about the universal struggles with identity and isolation. More specifically, it's about a boy who doesn't quite fit into what is still seen as society's idea of what a man should be. Barry Jenkins shows empathy and understanding of subject matter, and mastery over the connection of style and substance, that very few directors can match. Visually, Moonlight is a masterpiece. Not in a flashy "look at the light bounce off that leaf" kind of way, but in how purposeful and fitting every colour and camera movement is, and how shots linger for just the right amount of time.

Jenkins also strikes gold with his actors. I found Naomie Harris a little unconvincing, but she holds her own and has some very nice moments. Mahershala Ali looks set to take home a Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as surrogate father/drug dealer Juan, and will join the ranks of most deserving winners in the award's history. Janelle Monae is solid and Andre Holland helps the final chapter work so brilliantly as Chiron's childhood friend/love interest Kevin.

But it is the trio of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes, playing protagonist Chiron at different stages of his life, who make this film something special. Hibbert must be all of 12 years old with zero acting credits to his name. His ability to convey "Little" Chiron's confusion and loneliness is astounding. Sanders wouldn't be much older with just a few more credits, but is amazing as the teenaged and still outcast Chiron. He gets the most powerful material and delivers it like he's been doing this for decades. Chiron still has that look of despair etched all over his face, but when he explodes, both emotionally and physically, Sanders plays it perfectly. Rhodes is Chiron after a major turning point; he's now all muscle, grills and has followed in Juan's footsteps. But he can't fool the audience and he certainly can't fool Kevin. Rhodes plays Chiron like a man-boy, which works so well because he is a boy who was never allowed to be the man his nature wanted him to be. It's beautifully internalized work that I'm surprised hasn't received more praise.

Languidly paced but with such purpose and direction that it never drags, Moonlight will stick with you and leave you pondering how harsh and unfair life can be. It will also leave you knowing that film is art and entertainment, but some filmmakers are capable of using the medium to deliver something so much more. The 23rd of January was a pretty depressing day for me, but one I will look back on to remind myself how good cinema can be and if I were a more sentimental man, a life-affirming one.

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