NYFF Film Review: ‘Moonlight’ Captures Urban Truth in a Masterful Manner

National Society of Film Critics

moonlightposterNEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2016: A magnificent portrait of urban life, Barry Jenkins‘ astounding “Moonlight” captures the essence of a generation. Acting as urban cinema’s “Brokeback Mountain” and “Boyhood,” it’s as if we got to see “Ennis” and “Mason” grow up in a different culture and era. In this case, it’s even more powerful and profound. You’d be challenged to see a greater and more honest depiction of love and life this year.

“Moonlight” tells the story of Chiron. It chronicles the young black man’s life from childhood to adulthood, and how he struggles with life, family and his sexuality.  His surroundings attempt to teach him the desperate lesson that many young people from inner cities are yearning to learn: What does it mean to be a man? As Chiron interacts with his friend Kevin, drug-addicted mother, a local and caring drug dealer, and various groups of boys that pick on him, he hopes to understand his fundamental purpose.

The film is so painstakingly raw, it feels at times like snippets from many of our own childhoods. Being a part of a family with an absent father, and growing up in neighborhoods where the danger ends up as a sort of comfort, and ending up in the embracing arms of surrogate families – this story speaks volumes. The screenplay by Jenkins, which is based from Tarell McCraney‘s unpublished play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” who receives a “story by” credit, is one for the ages. Chiron feels like a real human being, walking through life, gaining our own love and worry along the way. We take him in our own hearts and souls as his quiet and reserved frustration begins to boil over. Where the film comes alive is in Jenkins’ direction.

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moonlight_barryjenkinsAssembling a team of unconventional talent like cinematographer James Laxton (“Tusk” and “Camp X-Ray“), composer Nicholas Britell (“The Big Short” and “Gimme the Loot”), and editors Joi McMillon (debut feature) and Nat Sanders (“Short Term 12” and “The Do-Deca-Pentathlon”), shows how adept Jenkins is. Every frame feels considered, thought out, and important to the story. Jenkins’ decision to watch young Chiron make himself a bath with dishwashing soap or flex up one second after he encounters neighborhood bullies is stellar. A blue hue is cast on the screen, bringing a smooth and melancholic palate.

Where the film really comes alive is in the stellar ensemble that Jenkins assembles. When the end of the year rolls around, you’ll likely hear a different actor cited by a number of awards groups.  If justice is served, this is your Best Ensemble winner at the SAG Awards.

moonlight_aliChiron is played by three extraordinarily gifted actors. Alex R. Hibbert kicks things off with Chiron as a young boy. He evokes an inner pain and inquiry that’s deeply subtle and enlightening. Ashton Sanders comes on board as Chiron as a teenager. He articulates his emotions with the words punching their way out of his mouth. Only in the rarest of instances does he open up to people around him. Sanders simply shines. Trevante Rhodes closes the final third of the film as Chiron as an adult. Talk about wearing two faces: Rhodes perfectly displays a man wearing a mask and a secret. There’s a sense of shame behind the bling, and a sense of enigma behind the “grillz.” It’s an exuberant and completely lived-in performance.

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Mahershala Ali‘s brief but charged role as Juan is magnificent while Naomie Harris commits herself to a damaged and lost woman with breathtaking results. Academy voters, if you’re looking for Oscar-worthy names to add to your ballots , don’t look any further. The actors who play Kevin over three ages: Jaden Piner, and especially Jharrel Jerome and André Holland, are brisk and invaluable to the tale. The three capture the soul of a character who acts as urban cinema’s reverse Jack Twist. Quietly, the three are the heart and soul of the picture.

“Moonlight” has landed with a monumental confidence, destined to become a classic. It very well could be the single best film of the year. Only one word can describe it: masterpiece. The Oscars would be so lucky to list a film such as this as one of its nominees.

GRADE: (★★★★)

“Moonlight” is distributed by A24 and will be released on Oct. 21.
It will screen at the New York Film Festival on Sunday, Oct. 3.

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About Clayton Davis

Clayton Davis is the esteemed Editor and Owner of AwardsCircuit.com. Born in Bronx, NY to a Puerto Rican mother and Black father, he’s been criticizing film and television for over a decade. Clayton is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association where he votes and attends the kick off to the awards season, the Critics Choice Awards. He’s also an active member of New York Film Critics Online, International Press Academy, Black Reel Awards, and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association. Clayton has been quoted and appeared in various outlets that include The New York Times, CNN.com, Variety, Deadline, Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg Television, AOL, Huffington Post, Bloomberg Radio, The Wrap, Slash Film, and the Hollywood Reporter.
  • Joey Magidson

    It’s damn near brilliant. I’m at three and a half stars, but the upper echelon of three and a half. Great stuff.

  • Ryan

    I truly hope that this does for me what Boyhood did for nearly everyone else.

    • I loved “Boyhood” but I loved this more. It may be one of the best coming of age dramas I’ve ever seen.

  • Orlando Whitcomb-Worden

    Unbelievably excited for this. My current top four anticipated include this, La La Land, Billy Lynn and Arrival.

    • I share your excitement for all the films you mentioned.

  • creepingdoubt

    Terrific review and spot on. I love the very suggestive comparison to “Brokeback” (though its two main characters are named Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist). I share your hope that this movie gets the awards recognition it so richly deserves.

  • Stephen Shea

    This is maybe one of the best films I have ever seen let alone this year.