In an age where films can’t seem to want to do anything but shove their themes and meanings on a platter and serve it up for the lazy viewer, Moonlight manages with deft and subtlety some of the most complicated of themes in 2016’s cinematic year. When one considers the subject matter, it seems rife for cliché and melodrama. The story follows the life of Chiron, a gay, black and poor child of a drug addicted single mother in the heart of Miami’s Liberty City projects. That Moonlight avoids even a single stereotype in depicting three stages of this boy’s life is a testament to the masterpiece the film really is.
Credit must go to the casting director, given that three previously unheard of actors, two of them underage, play their leads with a power that makes us empathise with Chiron from the first image we have of him, running from other children looking to beat him up. This is a consistent theme throughout the film, as from his parent to his classmates, Chiron seems to be under attack from all different sides. In the first two of the three acts, Chiron spends all his time constantly under threat. He’s not only ostracised for his difference, but actively persecuted by beatings, neglect and emotional abuse.
Yet underneath it all is the greatest tragedy of the movie, where the third act shows Chiron finally accepted by society, finally respected and safe. The tragedy of this is that he has sacrificed everything he is, and all that he believes in to finally be accepted by others. In his own words “I went to Atlanta for a fresh start, and I built myself up to be hard”, and burying his homosexuality and most of his interests, including swimming in the ocean, which acts as a constant theme throughout the film, has meant that the world will leave him alone. This is the movie’s central message, and the focus of one of the first and one of the last lines of dialogue: that every man has the choice as to whether be true to himself or not.
The cinematography and score are incredible, and when added to the outstanding performances make this movie a sight to behold. It seems to be influenced, certainly in the first act, by the Brazilian Cinema Novo movement, which deals with similar themes of poverty and coming of age amid gang warfare. Images such as the children playing with a football made from rolled up newspapers, the references to holidaying in Brazil, and even songs on the soundtrack being sung by Brazilian artists all act as little homages to this inspiration.
This film could have been set in any favela, barrio or shantytown in the world, and its biting social commentary and examination of poverty, drugs, race, masculinity and homosexuality add serious weight to the film. But really, despite how well all of the above are dealt with, it’s not about any of these things. It is, at heart, a coming of age story, and a first class one at that. Given its glorification of Hollywood, La La Land, seems to be the bookie’s favourite for winning Best Picture in three weeks’ time. If the seemingly inevitable happens though, 2017 will be remembered as the year that Moonlight wasn’t awarded its deserving Best Picture award. It is not only the best movie I have seen all year, but an instant classic that will surely be remembered as one of the high points of this decade’s cinema for years to come.