Last but not least is the little film that could. Moonlight seems to have come out of nowhere to become a sensation across film festivals. The few theatres that showed it took every opportunity to play it for audiences, at times playing it on two screens. What makes this film special enough to end up on nearly every top 10 movies of 2016 lists? Besides the lowkey yet powerful storytelling, excellent performances and themes of growing up, this coming of age tale of a boy growing up gay and black in Miami is beautiful in every way. With strong empathy, Director Barry Jenkins pulls us into this boy’s life, leading us on haunting journey.
When we first meet Little (Alex R. Hibbert), he’s a nine-year-old being chased by bullies, taking shelter in an abandoned apartment. That’s where he comes to meet Juan (Mahershala Ali, also in Hidden Figures), a kind, soft spoken drug dealer who slowly becomes Little’s father figure. His role in Little’s life get called into question when Juan is appalled to find Little’s mom Paula (Naomie Harris) smoking crack. At the same time, Little finds a friend in Kevin (Jaden Piner), a fellow classmate who encourages his friend to stand up for himself.
As a teenager, he goes by his real name Chiron (Ashton Saunders). He’s still a target of bullying, but know it’s aimed at his homosexuality, with Terrel (Patrick Decile) leading the attacks. Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), in the other hand has become a real ladies man, while still close friends to Chiron. But their friendship becomes more, as we see in a beautiful scene of them holding hands at the beach. Meanwhile, Paula’s fallen deep into her addiction, often sleeping around for drug money. During those time, he seeks shelter from Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae, also in Hidden Figures). The actions of Terrel forces Chiron and Kevin to make decisions that forever change both their relationship and their lives.
As an adult, Chiron follows in Juan’s footsteps, going by the name Black (Trevante Rhodes). Now living in Atlanta, Black has become muscular and embraced his homosexuality. When he gets a call from Kevin (Andre Holland), Black decides to return to Miami and confront his past. First, he confronts his mother, who now lives in rehab. In a powerful scene, the guilt-ridden Paula confesses her shame to her son and says he doesn’t have to forgive her. Then he goes to the diner where he finds Kevin making Cuban dishes. Here, they make the decision whether they should be together.
You don’t just watch Moonlight, you feel it. Co-writer/director Barry Jenkins has created a cinematic experience beautiful in both its imagery and its humanity. Nearly every second is shot with cinematic beauty, whether it’s form the cinematography or the performances. I am surprised by the way Jenkins captures little moments of children playing with a rolled-up newspaper and make it look beautiful. Even when Kevin’s just cooking food, it’s shot with such beauty. Just as beautiful is the portrayal of the characters. Jenkins has a lot of empathy for these characters, portraying even their worst actions in an understandable light. This brings out layered performances in the actors, especially Ali and Harris. This film stands the most chance of stealing the Best Picture Oscar from La Land.