I had not heard of Moonlight before it won the 2017 Oscar for Best Picture. At first, I was mostly just pleased that La La Land didn’t get the award – I really didn’t like that film – but then ended up watching the winning picture in a tiny independant cinema near my work. Afterwards, as I stepped out of the dark cinema and back into the beautiful streets of Paris, I realised that Moonlight very much deserved the Oscar – and, secondarily, a full review on my part.
Chiron is a just a boy, but he already has the weight of the world on his shoulders. His mother doesn’t have time for him and the other boys at school bully him for being “a faggot”. He grows into a scared and lonely teenager, and then into a man hiding many secrets, probably even from himself.
Moonlight: my review
Moonlight is the touching tale of a young boy who doesn’t have the luxury of self love.
His life revolves around hiding from bullies in crack houses after school and from his emotionally abusive mother at night. His rare moments of well-being are at the beach, staring at the sea, feeling the sand slide through his fingertips, and learning how to swim.
The film is full of contrasts: the discreet, beautiful music that plays while Chiron wipes the blood off his face, the harsh lighting and filthy bathroom in his house compared to the soft light of the moon on the sea, and adult Chiron’s aggressive exterior that hides the sensitive person within.
Chiron’s sexuality and identity are major themes in Moonlight. The haunting question you hear in the trailer says it all : “Who is you, Chiron?”. But he doesn’t seem to have an answer. It makes you wonder: just what do your actions say about you?
But Moonlight isn’t just about sexuality and identity, it is also about social reproduction. The main character goes by many names – Chiron, Little, Black – that are different phases and parts of his life. I got the impression that grown-up “Black” thinks he has taken control of his life, but in reality his fate was virtually inevitable. How could he grow into an honest, decent man after hanging around drug addicts and dealers for so many years? Chiron says it himself: he has to “build [himself] hard” or get trampled on for the rest of his life.
However, Chiron’s friend Kevin is a reminder that there is always a choice. Doing what others tell you to do will not make you happy, and in his case, it can get you into a lot of trouble. But when you start taking responsability for your actions, you can be happy despite your difficult past and present.
This film shows how the passing of time can heal many wounds, but also create others. As Chiron grows up, things get better and worse for him in different ways. He realises that he can be loved and betrayed by someone he trusts, and misinterprets the message his father figure Juan gives him at the beginning of the film: “At some point, you’ve gotta decide for yourself who you’re gonna be”. Chiron gets older, changes the way he walks and talks, and makes choices that sadden you, dispappoint you, but that you understand all the same.
Faced with this hard and corrupt figure, the people who love Chiron can’t help but blame themselves. Their apologies finally come, years and years after the crimes they committed, and yet they are not too late. The simple, quiet innocence in Chiron’s tears is a beautiful thing to watch, and it is easy to see that his forgiveness heals Chiron just as much as his transgressors. His love is complicated and flawed, but it is unconditional.
Moonlight is beautifully filmed. Many things are never said, but the images make you understand them anyway. And despite a lot of one-sided conversations and long silences, I was not bored for a second. The lighting is also key: sometimes soft, sometimes harsh, but always showing you something important. There were a lot of close-ups on small but important details, especially various characters’ hands and arms: fingers wiping a tear off a cheek, a handshake full of meaning, trembling hands struggling to light a cigarette, hard, swift punches and a twitch of a finger showing that there is still life in an inanimate body.
In my opinion, Moonlight‘s tour de force is in having been able to tackle so many difficult subjects without resorting to clichés. The complex and changing characters are miles away from the simplistic ideas you might have of drug dealers, junkies or prostitutes. The tension in the characters’ lives is palpable, and the film made me reflect on just how priviledged so many of us are.
Moonlight is one of those films that makes me wish that everyone had seen it so I could discuss details in this article without spoiling it for others! I am hoping that the Oscar for Best Picture will encourage more people to go and watch it like I did. If you’ve seen the film, let me know what you thought in the comments!