Despite all the fuss and glamour of the Oscars, their main point is a great one: giving a spotlight to great, sometimes smaller, films that they wouldn’t have otherwise seen. Of the nine films nominated for Best Picture, I’ve managed to see six so far (nearly seven – Fences comes out in Oz in a few weeks), and without the Oscars, I wouldn’t have even known about some of these films, let alone seen them. So this year (like every year) I have to thank the Oscars, because without them I wouldn’t have seen Moonlight.
Moonlight tells the story of a young black man growing up in a rough neighbourhood in Miami, during three important times in his life: child, teenager and adult. Director Barry Jenkins focuses on these three eras to create a powerful coming of age story that allows the audience to see how everything a child experiences – the good, the bad, and the truly awful – will impact who that child becomes. Moonlight’s quietly beautiful storytelling is remarkable cinema, with Jenkins’ breathtaking direction smashing harsh neon scenes against the calming sea, blending wonderfully with the organic performances of such a wonderful cast.
As the film moves from one era to the next, the three different actors who play Chiron – Alex Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teenager, and Trevante Rhodes as an adult – seamlessly create one man at different stages of his life. But all three give him something different: Little (Hibbert) is curious, both as a child himself and to those around him, quiet and intriguing. As he experiences the beginning of his sexual awakening as a gay man and is terrorised by his crack-addict mother Paula (a terrifying Naomie Harris) for it, Mahershala Ali’s Juan and his girlfriend Teresa treat him as their own, trying to send him down the right path, one of self-acceptance and confidence for who you are. This father-son relationship that Little has never experienced is so moving to watch, and Mahershala Ali is brilliant, culminating in a stunning scene as Juan teaches him to swim that is a visual highlight of the movie.
Teenage Chiron (Sanders) is intense and captivating, but things have become much worse: Juan is gone, and hard as Teresa tries, Paula is still taking advantage of Chiron’s generosity. Despite his high school peers constantly vilifying him for it, Chiron is exploring his sexuality for the first time, giving us the most beautiful, evocatively intimate scene I have ever seen, so passionately and sweetly directed by Jenkins. This is in contrast to the violent descent at the end of this chapter, an almost painful to watch destruction of everything good in Chiron, that rips your heart out and makes you wonder if everything will be okay.
In the third act as we see Black (Rhodes), the result of his upbringing: but despite his tough, straight, drug-dealing exterior, Black is still kind, and you see the pain of his existence in his eyes. At this point, Jenkins has your heart on a string, wondering if everything will be okay, hoping for a moment of catharsis, and Jenkins doesn’t disappoint, his ending subtle but powerful.
More films need to be made like this: not relying on the big popcorn movie moments of good guys defeating bad guys, of money shots that are spoiled in trailers. This is what the Oscars are for, for highlighting films that tell real, human stories. Moonlight is tough to watch from beginning to end, but for every moment of pain there is a small ray of joy, and through his remarkable performances and striking direction, Jenkins teaches us that our past does not define us, but our future.
With the Oscars right around the corner, here’s my top five favourite Oscar winning films:
- The Sound of Music
- Forrest Gump
Photos taken from IMDb.com: