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Nine-year-old Chiron (Alex Hibbert) has the world on his small shoulders: his mother (Harris) is a crack addict, leaving the kid to fend for himself when he encounters bullies at school. Taken under the wing of drug dealer Juan (Ali, House of Cards), Chiron, or 'Little', experiences some modicum of home comforts, which dissipates when he's a teenager (now played by Sanders). With Ali not around, Chiron gravitates to buddy Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), whom he has romantic feelings for. Years later the two meet again when Chiron (now Rhodes), a drug dealer, receives a phone call from his old friend…
Nominated for eight Oscars (Best Film, Actress (Harris), Actor (Ali), Director and Screenplay (both Jenkins), Moonlight actually deserves more: Newcomers Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes are outstanding. There's a consistency to their performances with all exhibiting Chiron's awkward, unsure mannerisms: his downcast demeanour, his guarded personality. Jenkins gives Chiron so little dialogue to work with, the actors have to put everything into their faces. And Jenkins' camera gets right in there, resting on the faces of his actors long enough for the audience to ponder what's going on behind the eyes; it's testament to the deft writing that the audience knows exactly what he's thinking. But sometimes Jenkins backs off, follows Chiron at a distance, as if allowing him room to breathe when he needs it.
The writer-director seems hell-bent on making a film quite unlike Boyz 'N The Hood or Menace II Society et al. He undercuts expectations at every turn: traditional notions of manhood and masculinity – give a beating, take a beating and don’t squeal, chase women, demean weaker men, etc. – is turned on its head. There's no rampant displays of heterosexuality, strength isn't in muscles but in mind. There's also a notable lack of hip hop on the soundtrack with sombre out of tune strings dominating.
Moonlight is a beautifully made, subtle film - introspective and thoughtful. It's dotted with wonderful scenes – when the young Chiron tentatively asks if Juan sells the same drug his mother is addicted to – but by far and away the standout is the diner scene when Chriron and Kevin (then played by André Hollan) circle each other. It's a masterclass in writing and nuance, and one the loveliest and tender scenes you’ll see all year.
Review by Gavin Burke | 14:56 | Friday 3rd February 2017 | Movie Review