Moonlight ★★★★½

"At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you're going to be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you."

It's films like Barry Jenkins' Moonlight that touch you in such a profound way, that make you fall in love with movies once again and remind you that this art form is much more than mere entertainment. We love to go to the movies and forget about our troubles in these fictional worlds, but every once in a while come films like Moonlight that do much more than simply entertain; they teach you, they open your eyes to the world around you, and they inspire you. Its films like this that I love to write reviews for, and read how it touched other people as well. If we could only choose one film from every year, then Moonlight would probably be the representative for 2016. It's not only a touching and emotional drama, it's a relevant film in today's society. It has a lot to say about individualism, identity, society, bullying, parenting, addiction, love, and so much more. It may speak to everyone in different ways because it never tries to force a certain life lesson on you, instead it simply follows the life of a young boy named Chiron who eventually becomes an adult through three different stages of his life (boyhood, adolescence and adulthood). Moonlight engaged me from the very opening scene and stole my heart through this tender and touching story. It's a powerful and relevant drama and one that should be required viewing in high schools around the globe.

In order for a character driven narrative to succeed you need powerful performances, and Moonlight delivers in each casting decision. The film opens with Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who is overseeing his neighborhood. We soon discover that he isn't the lead character, but he plays a key role in the shaping of young Chiron (Alex Hibbert in his first acting credit). The first time we see Chiron on screen, he is being chased by other kids. He is evidently an outsider and a boy that gets constantly picked on. Juan sees what's going on and instantly rescues him. From that moment the two form a bond and he sort of becomes a father figure for Chiron who lives alone with his drug addict and abusive mother, Paula (Naomi Harris). The abuse and neglect Chiron suffers is sickening and his character easily raises our sympathy. As much as Juan wants to help this kid, there is a discovery he makes that shakes him. The next chapter in Chiron's life takes place years later when he's in High School. Chiron now played by Ashton Sanders is pretty much the same shy and socially awkward kid that is constantly being teased by his classmates. His only friend is Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) who he seems to have a strong connection with. Just like in the first chapter at the end of this one another important discovery in Chiron's life shakes and shapes him in such a way that when the final chapter begins we see a different Chiron, now an adult living in Atlanta played by Trevonte Rhodes. I don't want to give too much away about the transformation he goes through in this chapter, but it's a very important moment in this film. It has a lot to say about discovering our own identity and conforming to society's expectations of how we should behave. This realization is what makes the film such a powerful and touching experience. The final diner scene is the best scene I've seen this year.

Mahershala Ali will probably be nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role here. Even though he has little screen time, the impact his character has on Chiron is present throughout the entire movie. Naomi Harris also delivers a powerful performance as Chiron's abusive mother. She should also receive a nomination for her supporting role although it isn't as showy as Monique was in Precious. Harris plays it in a much more subtle and believable way and she should be recognized for it. The three actors who play Chiron in the different stages of his life are outstanding. It proves that you can make a film like this without having to wait as long as Linklater did in Boyhood because when you have a talented cast the character's identity remains untouched. You honestly believe this is the same character, with a slight exception in the third act that might shake audiences at first, but makes complete sense once you think about that diner scene. The cinematography and the score for this film are beautiful and it accompanies the touching narrative in such a way that it transforms it into a modern masterpiece. But its all about the acting and the powerful screenplay written by Barry Jenkins that elevate this film to what it is: a beautiful and emotional touching character study of a boy/teen/man who is struggling to discover his true identity. It's an insult to categorize and reduce this film by labeling it as queer cinema because it is much more than that.

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