MOONLIGHT (DIR: BARRY JENKINS) (SCR: JENKINS & TARELL ALVIN MCRANEY, BASED ON THE PLAY "IN MOONLIGHT BLACK BOYS LOOK BLUE" BY MCRANEY)
If you saw the Oscar 2016 awards telecast, then you saw what was one of the craziest upsets in Oscar history: when Damien Chazelle's Hollywood musical LA LA LAND was nominated for a whopping fourteen Oscars, it's ultimate victory for Best Picture seemed assured. And as the evening progressed and Chazelle's film racked up six awards, it seemed inevitable. So when presenter Faye Dunaway wrongly announced that it had won the Best Picture award, nobody seemed surprised. Nobody, that is, except for the vote counters at Price Waterhouse Cooper, who were forced to swoop in, mid victory speech no less, and tell the producers of LA LA LAND that a mistake had been made*. And so it was that a moderately budgeted sleeper hit with two well known stars was beaten out by a very low budget intensely personal independent film. The win for MOONLIGHT bears out a trend that has been going on for some time now in movies: the best films are mostly being made independently with lower budgets allowing for more interesting and personal films, or in other countries altogether. And MOONLIGHT is an excellent film, with a script full of quiet, thoughtful moments and sad, emotionally removed characters. While a cynic might say that it won because it filled out a politically correct check list (with its gay, African American, impoverished lead character), it's simply a strong, melancholy story about a boy who grows into manhood without ever feeling that he fits in.
The film's production began when play write Alvin McCraney wrote a play entitled IN MOONLIGHT BLACK BOYS LOOK BLUE in 2003. The play was never produced. Years later film director Barry Jenkins was looking for a followup film to his 2008 debut MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY when the play's script came to him. Considering that, like McCraney, Jenkins grew up in the Liberty City projects and had a mother who struggled with crack cocaine addiction, he was drawn to the material, and he and McCraney began to collaborate on a film script that contained elements of both of their childhoods. The film was eventually produced by the A24 independent film company on a budget of around one point five million dollars, and it was shot in around twenty five days with a mostly unknown cast (interestingly, stars Janelle Monae and Mahershala Ali would both get career boosts when the highly entertaining hit film HIDDEN FIGURES would open up shortly after this one). Most of the film's shooting was done on the actual locations it was set in. Released in October of 2016 to glowing reviews, the film made around twenty-seven million dollars in America, and around another thirty million overseas, returning on it's small budget many times over!
It tells the story of Chiron in three separate times: when he is a boy (played by Alex Hibbert), then a teenager (Ashton Sanders) , and finally a young man(Trevante Rhodes). He grows up in the tough inner city neighborhood of Liberty City, Miami, with a crack addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris). As a child, he finds himself making a father figure out of his mother's drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), while also beginning to realize that he is gay. As a teenager, he is picked on mercilessly, and has his first sexual experience with his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). After lashing out at a bully, he spends time in juvenile hall. As an adult, Chiron is now a drug dealer. He reaches out to Kevin, who has become a chef. When the two meet, Chiron reluctantly admits that he has never been intimate with anyone other than Kevin.
|Mahershala Ali & Alex Hibbert|
So let's get this out of the way, MOONLIGHT is a groundbreaking Best Picture winner for a number of reasons: it's the first to feature only African American actors in speaking parts, to have a gay protagonist, and to be openly autobiographical. Also, if you adjust for inflation, it has the lowest budget of any Best Picture winner too. But again, I don't want to praise this film just because it fills out some quotas.
One of the striking things about the film is that it's original theatrical origin is apparent in its small cast, its dialogue heavy script and in the fact that it consists of mostly long, dramatic scenes played out slowly. But this is to the film's advantage: like in a good play, it's often the honest emotion of the dialogue, and the nuances of the long pauses in between the dialogue, that make the deepest impression on the audience.
And despite the film's low budget, it looks great: Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton fill the movie with jagged, white and yellow exteriors and cool blue interiors. And the camera keeps moving, whipping around the often harsh locations. Jenkins is well aware that a build up to an emotional moment is as important as the moment itself; like when a sadistic high school bully is about to make his move and the camera swings around him as he paces in a circle, ratcheting up the tension, or when the adult Chiron slowly walks towards the workplace of a man he hasn't seen in almost ten years and the camera follows him all the way, underlining the importance of the moment for him. Also, the film's repeated visual theme of the cleansing, purifying nature of water is wonderfully displayed, whether it's in the tender, almost baptismal way that Juan teaches Chiron how to swim, to the heartbreaking moment when the teenage Chiron tries to wash away his facial scars after a particularly harsh beat down. And the original soundtrack by Nicholas Britell, which features what he calls "chopped and screwed" classical music, is moving and almost mournful, with tender piano and violin. Appropriately, the softer classical music of the film's first two parts turns to hip hop for Chiron's adulthood to better reflect his more confident stance.
At one point in the film Chiron's friend Jack, after not seeing him for almost ten years, says to him "You still can't say more than three words at a time." It's a telling moment that says so much about the character; in all three stages of his life, Chiron feels like someone out of place, and who realizes that because he is different than the other boys and men around him, the more he says, the more likely he will be picked on for being different. (In the childhood and teenage scenes of the film, it painfully nails the casual cruelty that children often display.) To have such a soft spoken character as the lead of a film shows the importance of casting, and Jenkins did a great job. Alex Hibbert and Jaden Piner who play the childhood and teenage Chirons respectively, both seem to exude thoughtfulness and sensitively while saying very little. We immediately like the childhood Chiron, which is important because we then understand why Juan goes out of his way to check up on him, even while he says nothing. (In a very moving moment, Chiron can't bring himself to say goodbye to Juan when he's leaving, but he clearly is saddened by it). Given that the child Chiron says so little, when he does speak it carries enormous weight: the scene in which he asks Juan and his girlfriend "What's a faggot?" is so well acted, so matter of fact in it's depiction, and so quietly effective in Juan's response ("You can be gay, but you don't have to let nobody call you a faggot.") that it's probably the film's most moving moment.
Mahershala Ali won a Best Supporting Actor award for his portrayal of Juan, and it's clearly deserved; he is completely believable as he goes from being a tough guy drug dealer checking on one of his corner boys to a being a well meaning adult who just can't watch a kid being bullied without helping him. The gentleness of the swim lesson he gives Chiron shows his inner decency, even if he is a drug dealer. And the whole cast is excellent: Naomie Harris, as Chiron's mother Paula, has only a few scenes to portray a woman slowly coming apart from drug use, and she's great in all of them, especially when she desperately demands money from the teenage Chiron. She also has a great moment when she accuses Juan of trying to raise Chiron, to which he responds "Are you going to raise him?" "Are you going to keep selling me rocks?" She spits back, embracing the cruel irony of their situation. And as the adult Chiron, Trevante Rhodes is also very good; I love the way that he goes from putting up a tough front as a mid level drug dealer who messes with one of his younger dealers just to anger him, to letting that front melt away when Kevin calls him on the phone. Or the way that he obviously wants to say so much to Kevin, but can't bring himself to (his mildly shocked reaction to Kevin showing him a picture of his son is telling), until he finally spills out in the film's great last line "You're the only man that's ever touched me. I haven't really touched anyone since."
If the film has a flaw, I would say that I don't find the adult Chiron as interesting a character as his younger incarnations, perhaps because his inner turmoil is less apparent. Also, the fact that Juan does not appear in this section of the movie is disappointing, although understandable given that Chiron has grown beyond the need for a father figure.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
It's obvious that I love this movie, and while I also loved Paul Verhoeven's ELLE, Chan-wook Park's THE HANDMAIDEN and Ava DuVernay's 13th, foreign films and documentaries rarely get Best Picture nominations, so I'm perfectly happy with MOONLIGHT's victory.
*On a side note, I feel what happened is not only a victory for MOONLIGHT, but also a vindication for Marisa Tomei. Ever since she won the Best Supporting Actress award for the film MY COUSIN VINNY in 1992, rumors have persisted that the envelope had been read incorrectly by presenter Jack Palance, and that she hadn't actually won the award. We now know that Price Waterhouse Cooper would not let such a mistake stand.