Directed by Barry Jenkins.
Starring Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes, Mahershala Ali, Andre Holland, Janelle Monáe and Naomie Harris. 111 mins
The central character in Moonlight has three names and three faces and we drop in on him three times: as a boy called Little (Hibbert), a teenager called Chiron (Sanders) and a man called Black (Rhodes.) You'd expect a film that charts the journey from boy to man to be concerned with the passing of time, and that we would be given cultural signifiers to show where and when we are. Moonlight plays out in a vacuum, a suspended state, where the passing of time and the wider culture is entirely absent. It always seems to be the present day and other than a couple of extras, there isn't a white face in the whole film.
Jenkin's drama is strong on what is right in front of it. The camera is kept fixed on the foreground, on faces or people. Often the background is a blur. The effect of this approach is that it gives a lightness to something that would usually be very heavy. Chiron's mother (Harris) is a meth addict, the local drug dealer (Ali) becomes a surrogate father figure, he is bullied at school and struggles with his sexuality. Any other writer/ director would've presented this tale as a very stern and browfurrowed look at The African American Experience. Jenkins gives us life – a tough life to be sure, but the main thrust is the sense of being alive and the vitality of that, even when the life being lived isn't up to much. It's almost transcendent and the film simply flies through its first two thirds: you won't believe how quick he's grown. In the final third Jenkins decides to bring the film to a halt, to bring some consequence and reflection to the years that have flown by. Viewers may also need a few minutes to adjust to this last incarnation of Chiron: the gawky child has been transformed into musclebound 50 Cent lookalike.
Responsible gambling types looking for a decent outside bet might want to risk a bit of money on this to sneak the Oscar over La La Land, because: it's very good; they can't keep giving it to films about Hollywood; to make amends for the Brokeback snub; giving it to a Big Black Gay film would make for a wagging finger anti-Trump statement about diversity. But the values in Moonlight are generally, if maybe inadvertently conservative: drugs are bad, bullies have to be met with force, boys need fathers and races keep to themselves.