FlixChatter Review: Moonlight (2016)

moonlightmovie

It’s been nearly a month since I saw Moonlight, yet I still constantly think about it. I had heard the buzz coming from Sundance and TIFF prior to its regional premiere at TCFF, and the premise of a coming-of-age story spanning three time periods intrigues me. The film is written and directed by Barry Jenkins, adapted from Tarell McCraney‘s unproduced play titled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.

In terms of story-telling, Moonlight is certainly one of the most unique as well as challenging. Some might think it’s similar to Richard Linklater Boyhood (though I haven’t seen it yet) with the protagonist played by two actors. In Moonlight, the life of black-American Chiron is portrayed by three actors, from young adolescence (Alex R. Hibbert), mid-teen (Ashton Sanders) and young adult (Trevante Rhodes). The casting is impressive as all three actors, despite not looking that much alike, somehow shares a certain quiet grace about them and ability to conveys much with so little.

moonlight_chironjuanswim

As a young boy, Chiron (called Little) lives in Miami with his single, drug-addicted mother Paula (an intense Naomie Harris), while being bullied at school and struggling with his sexual identity. It’s whilst he’s being chased by a group of kids that he meets a crack dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) who takes him to his girlfriend Teresa’s (Janelle Monáe) house and gives him food. I love the scenes between Little and Juan, teaching Chiron how to swim, in the water as well as in the rough waters called life.

“…you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.”

It’s also the first time the issue of sexuality is explored, with Little asking Juan ‘what’s a faggot?’ and Juan’s answer certainly one that’d leave a mark in the young boy’s life. Juan is definitely not the typical drug dealer, or who we often think of someone in that profession. But then again, this film never resorts to oversimplification.

moonlight_chiron_teen

The transition between the three different periods in Chiron’s life is handled well, it never feels abrupt or jarring. As with many young boys in their teens, this time period is crucial in shaping their lives. The scrawny teen is still bullied at school, Chiron’s only friend is his Cuban-American friend Kevin (André Holland). I honestly have never seen Black sexuality/masculinity depicted in this way and it struck me just how beautiful and nuanced the story was. Forgoing explicit scenes, Jenkins’s way of depicting the sexually-charged scenes is far from gratuitous. In fact, it’s one of the most heart-wrenching scenes that really took my breath away.

moonlight_chiron_adult

In his adult life, Chiron now goes by the name “Black,” a nickname given by Kevin as a teen. He’s now a tough, muscular young man who now treads the same life as his childhood hero Juan, right down to the kind of car he drives. There’s an emotional exchange between him and his mother, but nothing quite as the reunion between him and Kevin. I won’t spoil it for you but that ending really hits me hard emotionally.

On top of the three actors portraying Chiron, the supporting cast is solid. Harris deglamorized to play the role of Chiron’s junkie mother, amazing that she filmed her role in between her busy press tour schedule for Spectre, a film that couldn’t be more different from this one. I love Monáe as the sympathetic mother figure to Chiron, and Holland did an affecting turn as the adult Kevin. But I’m most impressed with Mahershala Ali, I hope to see more of him in prominent roles, he’s got the screen presence and confidence of Denzel Washington. Moonlight deservedly earned the Robert Altman Award at this year’s Independent Spirit Awards that honor the entire ensemble cast.


Few films hit me as hard as Moonlight did. I was so emotionally-invested in Chiron and I often have tears in my eyes when I think about his arduous life journey. The films also deftly broke stereotypes, challenging our perceptions of what we think of masculinity, especially amongst the Black community. I was also in awe by the poignant, elegant and graceful storytelling style of a subject matter rarely depicted on screen. It won’t be a hyperbole that Barry Jenkins has created a masterpiece in his sophomore effort. I’m impressed that It made me curious to check out his debut, Medicine for Melancholy. I will be really ticked off if this film or Barry Jenkins isn’t nominated for Oscar this year. I’m so glad to have seen this in the big screen. I have to mention the music by Nicholas Britell as well as cinematography by James Laxton, excellent on both fronts that adds much to this beautifully-crafted film. I rarely give a full score but this film absolutely deserves it.

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Have you seen MOONLIGHT? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this film!

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34 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: Moonlight (2016)

    1. Hello Paula!! Glad you agree! Did this play in Cinema Detroit by any chance? Btw, let’s do the interview before the end of the year, unless you prefer to do it in January?

    1. Hi Ted! I hope you do see this as soon as it’s on Bluray, it’s really worth even the price of a film ticket! SOOOO well-written, well-acted AND it looks beautiful. I only watched the first few eps of season 1 of House of Cards, Ali wasn’t there yet, but I can’t wait to see him in Luke Cage! He’s also in Hidden Figures, another movie I can’t wait to see!

      1. I typically don’t like to go see dramas at a theater because I know there’s going to be one or two idiots who tends to like to talk during the film. It’s okay if it’s an action picture since I won’t be able to hear them with all the explosions but with dialogs driven films, it’s very annoying. If I go see this one, I might get a lucky and the theater would be mostly empty! And I think that might happen since this isn’t the kind of film general audiences would want to see.

  1. Tom

    Great rave review Ruth, I can’t say enough how much I look forward to being able to see this. I have plans to drive an hour and a half (one way) to the nearest indie theater playing this, since local theaters in my area have absolutely no interest in playing this. They would rather cram five screens with lame crap like Fantastic Beasts and/or Bad Santa 2 than play a film that has, by the sounds of things, continued to move mass audiences to tears. I hope the drive will be worth it, but it sounds like it will be. 🙂

    1. Hello Tom! I am so thrilled to hear you are willing to drive 3 hrs (roundtrip) to see this, and I’ll say that it’ll be worth the trip! I actually saw this one in one of the busiest days of my life, it was the fourth screening in a day during TCFF, back to back w/ LION. I was so tired by then but this film was so good I wasn’t bored one bit.

      Yep, Fantastic Beasts is what I’d say lame craps, I won’t even touch Bad Santa 2 even if someone paid me! It’s heartbreaking that great films like Moonlight doesn’t get many showings anywhere… but I do hope people seek it out.

    1. Hi Steven! If you only had time/money to see just a handful of films in the next month or so, please make one of them be Moonlight. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed!

  2. As you say, there has been a lot of buzz around this one and I still haven’t gotten the chance to see it yet. Your review is quite thorough and enticing.

    Also, it really does seem like Mahersala Ali is having quite the year. Glad he’s getting some recognition-such a talent!

    1. Hi Andrea, you should definitely check this out when you can. It’s really a modern masterpiece. I can’t wait to see Mahersala Ali in ‘Hidden Figures’ too, glad to see he’s having a good year, he’s definitely a talented actor!

  3. Brittani

    Great review! This movie was amazing. Like you, I felt so invested in Chiron. So much so that I was actually really disappointed in the ending because I wanted it to keep going.

    1. Glad to hear you have seen and love this too! Oh yeah, I could’ve watched an additional half hour even of this film, but I think leaving it that way is more poignant. Such an amazing film!

  4. “Some might think it’s similar to Richard Linklater Boyhood…” No. That would mean that Boyhood had actual depth, which I don’t think it had whatsoever.

    Great review! I honestly can’t wait to see where this movie stands during Oscar season, and I’m already excited at the momentum it’s been given thus far!

    1. Ahah, well I haven’t seen ‘Boyhood’ but I was only talking about the fact that the protagonist is played by more than 1 actors. I actually have no interest in seeing that one.

      Yeah, it just won big at Gotham Awards and got multiple noms at Spirit Awards so I’m hopeful for MOONLIGHT that it will gain traction all the way to Oscars!

      1. Boyhood’s central character is played by the same actor throughout x amount of years…which made it “so great” and so “different”…it’s not great though. You’re missing nothing.

  5. I can’t wait to see this one! I’m not sure it will ever come to our cinemas but maybe it will be available on DVD. It would be a shame to miss this one. HEaring only AMAZING things! And I hated Boyhood, but apparently Moonlight does this whole growing-up a lot better, so I’m interested to compare these two.

    1. Hi Getter, it’s definitely worth the wait and it lived up to the hype. I sure hope this will earn a bunch of Oscar noms. I mean if Boyhood could get some, it seems this one is eons better than that one, and it’ll definitely alleviate the #OscarSoWhite issue.

        1. Yep and it absolutely deserved it too. Masterful storytelling and phenomenally-acted. This is the one I’ll be rooting for, though I’ll be seeing La La Land in a couple of weeks and that one’s been getting a crazy buzz.

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  13. Great review Ruth. For me its a cinematic tapestry of lyrical moments and finely wrought detail on a journey for self-identity; you rarely see performances and filming like this.

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