Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Moonlight (2017) - Movie Review

I digest films the same way I digest food: Quickly and without it even touching the sides. I make it a point not to toot my own horn where I can, but when I comes to films, I often pride myself in how quickly I’m able to process films as I watch them, a skill that has grown significantly over the last 7 years. With all that said, in a way, I hate films like this; there’s a reason why I mainly stick to mainstream films on this blog with the odd indie/foreign release here and there. Films of this nature go against my sort-of instant gratification approach to media, and for the first time this year, it’s a film where I am still trying to sort out my opinions on the thing as I’m writing it. So, join me on what I’m sure is going to be a long, winding and occasionally navel-gazing attempt to break this film down in my usual style.

The plot: Separated into three acts, we follow Chiron (Alex Hibbert/Ashton Sanders/Trevante Rhodes) as he grows up in a neighbourhood surrounded by drug abusers and offenders of all ages. Under the initial tutelage of local dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), he begins to think that maybe his sexual persuasion is different from the norm and, as the world presses on him further, coming to terms with who he is and what he is.

Even considering we’re barely into February at the time of writing this, this has got to be one of the most solid casts I’ll see in a film all year. I will never not be excited to see Mahershala Ali in a feature film nowadays, and his nimbly-dodges-grooming demeanour around young Chiron is a real testament to his skills at the craft. Janelle Monáe’s supporting role gives some real hope for her performance in the soon-approaching Hidden Figures, Naomie Harris somehow makes a literal crack whore more sympathetic than the grieving mother that she played last time, and Patrick Decile as the high school bully Terrell fits that mould as well as could be expected. Then we get into the actors who portray Chiron and his romantic interest Kevin (Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/André Holland), who not only do brilliantly in their individual roles but also make it a breeze to believe that each triplet is playing the same character, just at different life stages.

This is easily one of the most Afrocentric films I’ve ever sat through, especially nowadays. In fact, it’s so insular and raw in how it depicts black Americans that, as a suburban white kid, I found it difficult to latch onto. Or, at least, difficult to latch onto without some variation of the name Mantan Moreland being mentioned. I openly admit that this could be some form of internalized racism peeking through, but with how much the characters are so full-frontal in their depiction of their own culture and ethnicity, it occasionally got interpreted in my own head as the writing and actor direction of a white guy trying to understand black culture. This is far from the truth, and I am certainly not proud of even admitting to this on page, let alone having the thought to begin with, but that’s just how it came across.

At its core, this is a film about masculinity and homosexuality framed against the cultural background of the era (or eras in this case); it’s basically a variant on Drown, which I looked at last year. That on its own shows the blinders that I went into this with: If I was unable to fully connect with a film that was set in my own backyard and centred on an aspect of Aussie culture that I wholeheartedly recognize, what chance does this film have with how distant it is from my own circumstances? Well, not as distant as it would first appear. The cinematic mindset shown here concerning African-Americans is upfront, but its rawness definitely gets across the idea that this is reality; it’s just a reality that most white audiences probably have no familiarity with.

During the opening credits, we hear Boris Gardiner’s Every Nigger Is A Star; this is the same way that Kendrick Lamar’s landmark album To Pimp A Butterfly opened, and that connection could very well be intentional with how this film deals with its themes of black identity. It’s a gritty tale involving drugs, trapping and a need to prove oneself as “hard”, and it’s shown through the lens that this is where a number of black Americans find themselves in today, but without blaming any individual for their circumstances or how they react to them.

As we watch Shiron as a child, a teenager and finally as an adult, his actions are aligned next to what I supposed would be our love interest for this film Kevin. The scenes where these two are together are what drive the film as a piece of societal observation, and subsequently leads to the film’s best singular moments. It may start on a mindfragging step with the two wrestling around on a football field which, with how it’s shot combined with how kid Chiron is left breathless after it, it’s almost like an allegorical sex scene. If that sounds squicky, then hopefully it’s starting to sink in that I have a lot of thoughts mid-film that I’m not proud of. Of course, it does end up making sense in context to the rest of the film as, while their relationship and individual life paths continue, we see how two kids with similar circumstances can be pushed in completely opposite directions due to a variety of environmental factors. Factors like peer pressure, institutionalisation and familial background, all of which are shown in rather harrowing detail.

By the time we reach our climactic scene set in a diner, you get the feeling that we have indeed watched the story of a lifetime that the poster promised us. What just occurred feels achingly close to home, something that cuts through the potential ethnic disconnect, and it depicts several lives full of tribulation in a way that leaves them their dignity, regardless of their actions, and allows the intimacy of the story to grow beyond the frame into a commentary on what it means to be a man, black, homosexual and all three.

All in all, I still don’t know if I have come to a sound resolution in my own head on this one, but I honestly don’t mind. This isn’t needlessly obtuse or endlessly wavering, so the fact that I’m still struggling to slice through it all feels earned; that rarely happens around here. Through strong acting, an incredibly nuanced script and the kind of direction that shows even scriptsploitation can be artsy, I can’t help but love this movie.

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