“Moonlight” is the little movie that could.
With a budget of just $1.5 million (compare that to the $30 million budget of another of last year’s “indie” films, “La La Land”), the quiet, romantic and heartbreaking “Moonlight” has become one of the most culturally poignant films in recent decades, earning Academy Awards for best supporting actor and best picture. It was the first film in history with an all-black cast and homosexual subject matter to win best picture.
Director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” tells the story of Chiron, a black boy growing up in the poverty-stricken and drug-addled Liberty City, Miami. The film is broken into three chapters: the first is the story of Chiron, or “Little” as he’s called back then, who is bullied as a child for being different.
As a kid, he meets a role model in Juan, played by the inimitable Mahershala Ali (“House of Cards”), a successful businessman who happens to deal in drugs. Juan takes Little under his wing as a respite from his mother Paula’s (Naomie Harris) dysfunctional home. Ali is given minimal screen time, but his nuanced performance stays with the audience throughout the movie.
Alex Hibbert, who plays young Chiron, is a non-actor who was plucked from Liberty City for this role, as was Jaden Piner, the young kid who plays Chiron’s best friend Kevin. This choice gives “Moonlight” another level of realism and heartbreak.
In chapter two, Chiron, played by Ashton Sanders, has grown into a teenager, who is learning about his sexuality. For that, he is frequently harassed and eventually brutally beaten. This chapter in Chiron’s adolescence moved us to tears.
His home life has gotten worse, and without Juan, Chiron is without direction. A heat-of-the-moment decision ends up changing the track of his life as well as his friendship with Kevin.
Over a decade later, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) now goes by “Black” and is dealing drugs in Atlanta.
An out-of-the-blue phone call from his long-lost friend Kevin finally spins Black in the right direction, and for the first time, the audience feels hope for him.
While there are other films with similar settings and circumstances, “Moonlight” stands alone as it takes its characters out of potential clichés and into uncharted territory. “Moonlight” is a must-see for experimental film lovers, as it will remain an important one for years to come.