Verdict: Please go see this movie, as soon as humanly possible. It is going to get an Oscar nomination. It has a fantastic, representative cast, is beautifully artistic, and it’ll be the best choice you made all week.
Synopsis: A young man (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) deals with his dysfunctional home life and comes of age in Miami during the ‘War on Drugs’ era. The story of his struggle to find himself is told across three defining chapters in his life as he experiences the ecstasy, pain, and beauty of falling in love while grappling with his own sexuality.
The Good: Just about everything in this movie is good. First and foremost is the use of three actors to play one part. Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes all play the same young man, but at three different periods of his life. Hibbert has a lot of chops for a 9 year old actor in his first ever film. He plays the part with a seriousness that I didn’t think was possible for someone his age. Sanders plays the character in high school, who now goes by Chiron. I don’t know much about the production of this film, so I’m not sure if the three actors spent a lot of time together, but the continuation from Hibbert to Sanders to Rhodes is palpable. They mirror each other’s facial expressions, speakings styles, eye movements, and more. Rhodes finishes out the film, playing Little/Chiron as an adult, now called Black. He does a fantastic job of denying the traits assigned by the first two actors in public, but falling back into them when his character is in private.
HOWEVER. The real show stealer, without a doubt, is Mahershala Ali as Juan, who acts as a guardian for Little. For the little bit of the movie he is in (just the first act), he absolutely shines. In House of Cards, Ali has a quiet and dangerous seriousness. In Luke Cage, he has this constant twinkle and laughter that masks his brutality. In Moonlight, Ali really combines these parts. He’s serious and clearly the alpha of whatever room he is in (minus home, more on that in a sec), but also shows a depth of caring and paternity toward Little that he hasn’t brought to other roles. Make sure to tell people you saw it here first, because I’m calling it: Mahershala Ali wins an Oscar in the next 5 years, or I kiss a pig.
The rest of the cast is also amazing, but I only have so much room. First, Naomie Harris as the mother, Paula: she absolutely deserves recognition for playing a part that could have easily been reduced to a stereotype. Instead, she brings a nuance to it that is fresh, and frankly shows the strength of writing form experience. Second is Jharrel Jerome and André Holland as Kevin (age 16 and adult, respectively), who are, in short, fantastic. And finally, Janelle Monáe as Teresa, Juan’s wife and second guardian to Little. Her character is only seen a few times, but she establishes her with such strength and presence that when the character is referenced for the rest of the film, her performance carries with you.
And that was just the cast. Honestly there’s so much good. The lighting is dynamic, which brings an interesting look to most scenes, particular with lots of light. It feels more artistic, less like a documentary or really serious look. The editing is sharp, jumping just enough to keep the snapshot-feel, but too much to feel jumbled. The use of color is brilliant, tying into the dialogue and themes with simple parallels. The color usage is used in transition between chapters, a flickering light that recalls different types of film, and moods.
And last but not least, the film’s music. I have absolutely no background or technical understanding of film scores, or facts for what I’m about to say, but I’m also 100% sure I’m right. The music is used in conjunction with the chapters to signal the main character’s descent from self to stereotype. It begins with lots of classical and instrumental pieces, but as the character is pushed to conform, is pushed farther to his limits, and becomes quite literally, Black, the music changes. It becomes darker, more abusive. It matches the dialogue as well: in the beginning, he is quiet, and more pure, but goes on to become misogynistic and violent. In short, this whole damn thing is great.
The Bad: Go ahead and find something. Because I couldn’t.
The…Complicated? Normally this would say The Ugly, where I usually talk about the bad things not totally related to the quality of the film, i.e., lack of representation, etc. But this doesn’t have that.
It’s got an almost entirely (if not completely) non-White cast. It is directed by a Black man. It is has two wonderful Black actresses. It shows a positive and nuanced non-heterosexual relationship. The only downside is it fails the Bechtel test completely and utterly.
Nonetheless, this is a great movie. Plain and simple. End of discussion. It is powerful, and moving. But in honesty, I had a really hard time reviewing it. Because while I know it was great, I also know that this movie isn’t really for me. This movie is about a young, non-hetero Black man during the War on Drugs era of Miami. I can only connect to the young part of that equation. But to me, that was the point: I could still connect with the coming of age component. It was just that well done. And even if I couldn’t, even if 99% of this movie is about someone completely different from me, it is still absolutely wonderful. It’s a 2 hour walk in another man’s shoes. And in a pair of shoes that, given the current state of the world, would normally just be written off. But you can’t write Chiron off. Because he’s a person, with a complicated past and life, just like you.