Monday, November 7, 2016

TO PIMP A BUTTERFLY: a review of "Moonlight"

Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney
Written for the Screen and Directed by Barry Jenkins
**** (four stars)

Finally, after far too long this year, I have seen a film that burrows deeply under the skin, and into the heart and mind so luxuriously and with a powerfully quiet devastation that even after having seen it, I wonder just how so much was accomplished with a film that is actually quite reticent.

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight," based upon a story and play from playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, is without question one of the finest films that I have seen in 2016. Through its deceptively mellow atmospherics and often silent eloquence, Jenkins has ultimately created an emotionally surprising and harrowing experience that gives audiences a profoundly clear eyed view into a world that is essentially never seen in modern cinema...or at least in the way Jenkins has mounted his vision.

"Moonlight" is a film of tremendous empathy as well as artistry, precisely the type of film that allows anyone that chooses to view it a priceless opportunity to walk a life within someone else's shoes yet without any sense of hyperbole or any qualities that suggest a didactic self-importance. And dear readers, I definitely urge you to make the choice and see this remarkable, painful, and essential film, especially during a period in our collective history when even a modicum of understanding for those different than ourselves would do each and every one of us a world of good.

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" chronicles the coming-of-age and internal odyssey of Chiron, a shy, withdrawn, reticent African-American individual from inner city Miami and as told in three distinct chapters. In the film's first chapter entitled "Little," we meet Chiron as a child (played by Alex Hibbert), dubbed "Little" due to his small stature and quiet demeanor.

Chiron is the product of an absent Father and Paula (Naomie Harris), his emotionally abusive Mother who is also falling into a horrific drug addiction. Essentially friendless aside from the more outgoing and confident Kevin (Jaden Piner), and often the target of the neighborhood bullies, Chiron first begins to find solace and acceptance in the home of Juan (an outstanding Mahershala Ali), the local crack dealer and his girlfriend Theresa (a very strong Janelle Monae).

The film's turbulent second chapter entitled "Chiron" finds our protagonist in his teen years (now staggeringly well played by Ashton Sanders). With Paula lost to her drug addiction, and now aggressively and repeatedly targeted by classmate bully Terrel (Patrick Decile), Chiron feels more emotionally lost than ever before save for his friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), a friendship that opens up the door to Chiron's emerging knowledge of his homosexuality.

The film's third chapter entitled "Black," finds Chiron in adulthood (now played by Trevante Rhodes). Set ten years after the second chapter with Chiron now based in Atlanta as he returns home to Miami after receiving a phone call out of the blue from Kevin (played by Andre Holland).

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" is as magnificent as it is supremely haunting and sobering in its depiction of inner city life combined with a riveting yet dreamlike aesthetic that powerfully underscores a searing emotional pain of one young man's relationship with his own development, his notions of family, his sexuality, and his destiny, all the while filtered through an existential crisis of not only discovering his place within the world but wondering if there even is a place for him at all.

Jenkins' vision culminates in an art film with a capital "A," as his skills as a visual stylist through his brilliant collaboration with Cinematographer James Laxton provides each chapter with a distinctive visual sheen and attention to color. Additionally, I must give special mention to Composer Nicholas Britell, whose nearly chamber music score juxtaposes itself tremendously against the gritty urban settings.

And my word, I am compelled to give special mention to Casting Director Yesi Ramirez for I am unable to think of another film at this time where different actors portrayed the same character at different life stages where the different actors in question all appeared to be exactly the same person. It was as if Jenkins performed a cinematic feat akin to Richard Linklater's masterpiece, 12 years in the making project "Boyhood" (2014) but instead of using the same actors over an extended filming period, Jenkins accomplished a similar feat through using different actors to bring 15-20 years of Chiron's existence to vivid life. All three actors who portray Chiron, and for that matter Kevin, are superb in their individuality and collectively, deftly showcasing the full arc and life stories of these two young men who are inexplicably and yet so purposefully bound together.

Much as with Justin Tipping's excellent and sadly underseen "Kicks" from earlier this year, Barry Jenkins's "Moonlight" is a soulful and often esoteric view of inner city life as well as also serving as an exploration of African-American manhood from its expectations, prejudices, challenges, consequences, trappings and possible transcendence. Jenkins' cinematic eye and perspective are stemmed within visual poetry, where poignant silences contain oceans of meaning, simple vignettes are constructed to serve as deep dives into existential quandaries and the journey of the human spirit as one soul desperately seeks to find his own specific footing.

As with "Kicks" where that film's often solitary protagonist often connected with a spirit guide who existed in the form of a lonely astronaut. the life of Chiron in "Moonlight" is also one of severe displacement, of feeling trapped in a world in which he never created for himself but is forced to survive--the same Darwinian approach as also presented within "Kicks."  For Chiron, his Miami neighborhood is a world that most likely will ultimately define and alter him from who he may have otherwise become due to the unforgiving environment, of course, but also due to truly existing without consistent adult figures to help shape, guide, mold, and protect him.

Regarding the figures with whom Chiron ultimately connects with, "Moonlight" also upends expectations and whatever prejudices we in the audience may be holding towards certain characters--especially within the "Little" chapter of the film as Paula's drug addiction begins to take hold and Chiron finds solace with the surrogate parenting of Juan and Theresa. Juan, so brilliantly portrayed by the masterful Mahershala Ali (who also displays a different take on a similar character within "Kicks") is compulsively watchable as he moves like a panther yet elicits a tenderness and gentle layers of paternal depth that we never typically see from a figure who could have simply existed as yet another stereotypical ghetto drug dealer.

One remarkable sequence is one where he teaches Chiron to swim--a sly nod against the stereotype that African-Americans are not adept with aquatics. The sequence is so deceptively simple as Juan teaches Chiron how to float upon his back, proclaiming that the sensation feels as if he is gliding in the "middle of the world." What is tranquility for Juan expertly delivers to us the feelings of Chiron's abandonment by his own Mother via her addictions and the brutality of his peers. He is floating adrift in the universe, untethered to anything or anyone, rightfully tentative to reach out for fear of being abandoned all over again.

But there is Juan plus Theresa who give him the space, room and patience for him to speak in his own time, to trust when he feels ready and able and to become whomever he discovers for himself to be, When Chiron eventually asks of Juan to explain, "What's a faggot?" Juan's answer again will not only upend whatever perceptions you and I may have of him but also begins to reveal layers of characters not typically given to figures and men such as this one within the movies.

As previously stated, "Moonlight" essentially serves as a dissertation about Black manhood, a topic that is pushed to equally violent and vulnerable limits within the film's harrowing and heartbreaking second chapter, all of which leads to the aching emotional reunions and potential resolutions within the film's third chapter, a lengthy sequence between Chiron and Kevin that flows effortlessly between themes of the pain of lingering unfinished business, the tentativeness in revelations and the anguish of sexual confusion, which leads to the larger existential crisis of denying oneself the right to simply be the very person you are certain that you are but your surroundings dictate to you otherwise for your own sense of survival.  Again, Jenkins utilizes sheer poetry in the film's stunning and seductive third chapter, where elements like a prepared meal and a old soul song speak volumes between two quiet, reticent men, each seeking solace and the potential for connection and pure, unprejudiced understanding.

Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight" is an exceptional work, a film of tremendous humanity and empathy for those who desperately seek the truth of their own identities and the inherent right to exist as they wish and to the fullest of their individualized potentials. It is a film where Barry Jenkins showcases the lives that falls through society's cracks and are often vilified within the media and politicians either through ignorance, short-sightedness and often without remorse. For within Chiron and his exquisitely presented inner journey, with all of its trauma and sorrow, I would be hard pressed to believe that any of  you could not find some trace of him within yourselves as you regard the paths and pains of your lives as we all ask the following questions: "Who am I?" "What will I become?" "What is wrong with me?" "Will anyone love me?"

With regards to "Moonlight," I loved this film. So, so dearly.

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