Patrick Jensen (on Indefinite hiatus)’s review published on Letterboxd:
My Top 100 Favorite Films - #71
Chiron, also known by the names "Little", and later "Black", is a young black boy living in Miami with his mother Paula (Naomie Harris), a meth addict who is also emotionally abusive towards her son. Upon meeting Juan (Mahershala Ali), a kind Cuban man who takes him under his wing, we see how Chiron's identity evolves throughout three stages of his life, where we see how the correlation between identity, sexuality and the heteronormative view of masculinity shapes one's life.
I admit it is very hard to rate this film because of how emotionally intimate and resonant it was to me. As someone who as always had trouble about defining myself and always finding it difficult to act, speak and live "like a man", it is a true breath of fresh air to see a film that questions how we perceive masculinity, as it has often been my impression that many people take it for granted instead of being critical about why we use expressions such as "be a man" or why we often talk about showing a tough facade in order to remain calm in a world that is going to kick our ass. Not everything can be solved by boneheaded manliness, and while I am prone to such behavior myself (I do love to watch football/soccer, I listen to Van Halen or Guns N' Roses once in a while, and I love action films like John Wick and Commando), the constant need in our society to show that we're tough and aggressive is something I find kind of sickening. I mean, I am a 26-year old man who is not physically fit and who also happens to have soft values in the form of cultural appreciation and a very emotional state of mind, and if I told you I was heterosexual, I would be laughed off in our contemporary society, because I don't fit in with the heteronormative masculine stereotype.
Enough ranting, the reason why I like this film is first and foremost the direction and cinematography. We have many close-up shots throughout the film, which heightens the emotional intimacy of the film, and added to that, some of these scenes even have voice-over dialogue which further displays the emotional distance Chiron feels towards the people surrounding him in his life. There's also a great use of long takes, often involving the camera circling around the setting to show the confusion Chiron feels around his own identity/masculinity, but also to emphasize the perpetual cycle of toxic masculinity that seems inevitable for the life Chiron is leading. Added to that, the sombre score provides a perfect complementary soundscape to the emotional atmosphere at display. The audiovisual work of this film might not be the most flashy of 2016, but it is definitely the most intimate, if you ask me.
This film also has some strong writing and performances. The three actors playing Chiron throughout the film (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) all deliver great understated performances, especially since the two older actors also have to carry on the younger Chiron's vulnerability with them in their performances. Naomie Harris also delivers a strong performance as Paula, Chiron's mother, and the tragedy of her character is emoted with such conviction that I wonder why no one has talked her up for any awards. Amidst the sadness, Janelle Monáe delivers a surprisingly uplifting performance as Teresa, Juan's girlfriend, who seems to be the most positive character in the whole film, while Mahershala Ali probably gives the strongest performance. He might not be in it for long, but his loving nature, contrasted by his professional choices, leaves a lasting effect throughout the whole film in both Chiron and Paula's lives. I might have talked up the performances of Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water and Michael Shannon in Nocturnal Animals, but I think Mahershala Ali should be the one to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
I do have one big gripe with the film, though, but one that could dissipate on a rewatch. As much as I admire the inclusion of the gay romance in the film, I found it kind of awkwardly executed most of the time. It is one particular scene that most explicitly delves into Chiron's sexuality, which was preceded by a dream sequence I found somewhat unintentionally hilarious. It felt a bit rushed to me, and if it is supposed to be the one moment that confirms his sexuality, it felt a bit devoid of sincere passion to me. I admire the courage to include it in the film, but I also feel that it should have been done a lot better than the case was.
In conclusion, Moonlight is a film that I recommend that you watch, regardless of gender or your perception of what masculinity is. The direction, cinematography, score, writing and acting is so emotionally resonant and intimate that I can't help but admire it.