I went to bed last night after watching Moonlight and when I woke up in the morning it'd won the Academy Award for Best Picture. Did it deserve it?
Although I personally preferred both Manchester by the sea and I, Daniel Blake I thought it was a worthy recipient and not just because considerably lesser films have scooped the gong in the past. Although it's great that Barry Jenkins' film (based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney) has as its protagonist a black gay male that alone would not have been enough to merit an award. What's reaped the film so much critical acclaim is, I believe, the fact it tells a simple, heartfelt, story in an innovative, yet affecting, way.
It tells the tale, in three parts, of Chiron. Growing up in a district of Miami with a name, Liberty City, that starts to look like a cruel irony as we see the mental prison the adults that surround Chiron have either built for themselves or had forced upon them by drugs and poverty. His mother Paula (an excellent turn by Naomie Harris) is dependent and emotionally abusive so he falls in with Cuban crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali completely deserving his Oscar despite his limited screen time) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae, also brilliant in a fairly unshowy role). Despite the nature of their business, and the fact they're responsible for keeping his mum hooked, Juan and Teresa are caring surrogates and slowly coax words out of the initially silent, and scared, young boy. Eventually they gently usher him towards learning how to make his own way in life.
There are many films that look back on idyllic childhoods but Moonlight succeeds best when it shows us how confusing, and often terrifying, the adult world is when viewed through a child's eyes. Not least a bullied child, unsure of their sexuality, and surrounded by addicts, criminals, and people who'd physically harm them for no reason at all.
As Chiron grows up we revisit his life two more times. Each actor who plays him (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) inhabits the role slightly differently. There's not huge physical similarities between them and as Chiron, even as a fully grown adult, is a man of few words all three actors need to be able to physically convey a great deal with their facial expressions and body language. They all pull it off. Hibbert's puppy dog eyes and Sanders' slumped shoulders suggest a child, and then young man, who's had their spirit broken. Rhodes (who plays the hip-hop loving, drug dealing Chiron after he's moved to Atlanta, Georgia) has to be more enigmatic to convey the impression of a lost child inside the body of a large, and potentially threatening, man.
We see Chiron unhappy in his home. We see him bullied mercilessly at school. He only seems to have one friend. Kevin (played by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland) is as loquacious as Chiron is taciturn. He boasts of his supposed exploits with girls, and, in a craven act of cowardice to save his own skin, joins in with the merciless bullying but there's clearly both an emotive and physical attraction between Kevin and Chiron. Will it be consummated?
I'm not going to tell you but I don't think it really matters. This is a film about growing up, finding what's right for you, and how difficult it is to shake off the demons that may attach themselves to you at a very young age. Aristotle once said "give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man". This film not only underlines that but capitalises it, italicises it, and highlights it with a marker pen. It speaks very slowly but it says a great deal worth hearing. The solitary tear that plots an uneven path down the adult Chiron's cheek as he speaks to his prematurely ageing mother in her Georgian treatment facility could be seen as a metaphor for the circuitous path that he, and all of us, have to navigate through a life that sometimes seems too painful to bear. It is great credit to Barry Jenkins and the cast of Moonlight that they could make this journey such an emotional one yet steer clear of schmaltz. Yeah, that award was deserved.