With the Oscars just a few days away, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight has garnered unanimous critical acclaim and 8 Academy Award nominations, and though predicted to lose Best Picture Oscar to La La Land (an Academy’s favorite), it is nonetheless a must-see that would have easily won the major award any other year. Jenkins’ exquisite triptych on masculinity, sexuality, love and family is quite the perfect movie.
Shot in the predominantly black neighborhood of Liberty City in Miami, Moonlight portrays the challenges faced by Chiron, a young homosexual boy, from childhood to adulthood. Three periods of Chiron’s life dissected in three personalities: Little, his childhood nickname due to his appearance and personality, Chiron, the identity he tries to unsuccessfully defend during the tough years of High School, and Black, now an ex-com drug dealer who has left Miami fro Atlanta. Unable to survive with his real identity after being constantly harassed for his homosexuality, Chiron turns into his masculinity referent, his mentor Juan (Mahershala Ali, who’ll win his first Oscar for a subtle yet nuanced performance), a Cuban drug dealer whom he meets during his childhood. The hero needs to mutate, hide who he really is in order to survive, while he longs to go back to that exact moment he was accepted for who he was. Despite the triptych identity, something at the core of the character remains pure and simple: love.
As I said before, Moonlight deserves to win Best Picture. Maybe not this year (after all and despite the recent backlash, I am pretty much in love with La La Land), but any other year: it is pure Oscar material. In a previous entry about Manchester by the Sea I discussed how Academy Award movies should combine the two paths of modern cinema: artistic value and box office attraction. Moonlight is much more than that: it is a realistic film that explicitly shows poverty, drug abuse and harassment, but does so with such artistry, turning a real setting and real characters into something poetic and almost surreal. It is truly admirable that Academy members have given this movie the attention it deserves, thus making it available to probably millions of people who would have never heard about it. With just a 5-million dollar budget, Moonlight has already grossed over 21 million dollars in the US market alone, which I think is a great sign for independent cinema and gives me hope about the future of movies and moviegoers. It is also easy to understand why the film will not win Best Picture on Sunday: it is no for everyone. I usually say this about many art films I consider a wide mainstream audience will pass on, but in this case the emotional challenge the movie presents may be difficult to bear. The movie follows you, stays in your head for days.
I recently read a review (whose author I’m not going to mention), who criticized Barry Jenkins’ film for lacking a substantial plot. I believe this person complete missed the point. Jenkins’ almost magic realism comes from taking the ordinary, a reality that too many people still face nowadays in so-called modern societies, and turning it into something of extraordinary beauty, thanks to James Laxton’s cinematography and Nicholas Britell’s soundtrack. The ordinary thus becomes extraordinary, and a story that could go unnoticed becomes what I believe is one of the greatest films of the decade.