After last year’s racial issues at the Oscars, 2017 provides the ideal conditions for Barry Jenkins’ sophomore film to thrive in. Nominated for 8 Oscars, the film has received much critical acclaim since its release, and this is not due to chance or charity. What is perhaps most rewarding about the film’s success to date is not that it highlights the incredible talent of all actors and crew involved, or that it deals with an extremely important social issue, but that evidently, it is a breed of the new Oscar-winning films that is credited as much for its skill behind the lens as it is in front of it.
While thematically, Moonlight deals with important issues such as depictions of masculinity and homosexuality, these issues are covered and dealt with in a relatively unconventional manner. It is essentially a film that revolves around human relationships and interactions, and whereas the Oscar-worthy themes are extremely relevant, the film has much more to offer on a secondary level. Character development is at the forefront of the films priorities and in many regards, it is a work of visual art, which does not rely entirely on the storyline to drive the film forward. Instead, camerawork, clean and stylish editing and pitch-perfect sound mixing are used to enable the film to flow forward in a steady ebb of well executed scenes.
The story unfolds in three chapters, telling the tale of a young boy’s childhood, teenage adolescence and early adulthood. During these first two sections of the film in particular, we are shown some of the struggles faced by a young black male coming to terms with his homosexuality. The manner in which this difficult childhood is depicted is both stylistically and visually pleasing. Each shot is calculated and measured to capture the essence of a troubled youth in lower-class Miami. The film is minimalistic in the sense that no unnecessary music or dialogue is included, a trait that also helps to highlight the isolation faced by Chiron, our young protagonist.
Credit must also be given to the strong performances provided by the predominantly black cast; the two Oscar nominees, Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris are excellent, particularly Harris who features for longer and executes some haunting scenes while playing Chiron’s crack addicted mother. Ali plays a local drug dealer that acts as a father-like figure for Chiron in the film’s opening section and provides a mesmerizing performance, however his presence is relatively short lived and more time behind the lens would have been very welcome in this case.
The films third and closing section is perhaps its weakest. It jumps forward to Chiron’s early adult life, and while it makes some interesting points in relation to the question and masking of identity, the lack of dialogue, for the first time is missed. While powerful scenes do unfold, notable those featuring his mother (Harris) and Kevin (André Holland), Chiron (now played by Trevante Rhodes) has chosen to replicate the life of father-figure, and plays the surprisingly uneventful role of a drug dealer. While the symbolism is undoubtedly important, it is the first time in the film where fashionable cinematic techniques fail to drive it forward in a steady flow.
Nonetheless, Moonlight is an impressive feature which plays by its own rules. It deals with necessary social issues that should be brought to the attention of the mainstream, and it does so on its own terms and without the usual major name drops. Instead, solid performances, stylish and clean editing, immaculate sound mixing and no doubt award-winning cinematography combine to make an incredibly ambitious second feature for Jenkins, one that, for the most part, perfects the fundamental techniques of good cinema making. James Holohan