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Moonlight

Year: 2016
Production Co: A24
Director: Barry Jenkins
Writer: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Alex Hibbert, Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Roades, Janelle Monáe

Moonlight was on a fast track towards the kind of word of mouth greatness all indies dream of before the embarrassing Oscar snafu that reduced it to a punchline.

Like the other film caught up in the embarrassing Awards night episode (La La Land) I came to it late, so I'd been through all the fawning praise and kudos and wondered if the result would let me down. One thing I was especially watchful for was that all the critical love hadn't just been simply because it was about a gay African American character – a seemingly easy Oscar ticket in a period where discussion about the lack of diversity in Hollywood was reaching fever pitch. Not only that, it was about a kid who comes from a poor background, and there's nothing awards voters love more than a hard luck story.

But is it 'just' a story about a poor, gay, black kid growing up, and that's all the various awards bodies the world over needed, or is it also a well made movie? It's actually a very delicate and well-managed dance between the universal and the intensely personal. Little (Alex Hibbert) lives in a very specific place and time – the poor districts off the strip of 1980s Miami when drug kingpins ruled the streets – the likes of which most of us will never know by the grace of God.

At the same time, it's about experiences we all have to deal with like parents, love, our sexuality, bullying and figuring out who we are – little just has a tougher set of circumstances in which to do so. Even if he had a stable home life and decent parents instead of a long-gone father and a crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris) he'd be years away from understanding the strange feelings he has for his classmate and friend Kevin (Jaden Piner).

He finds a father figure in the local drug lord Juan (Mahershala Ali in the role that made him the first Muslim actor to win a Best Actor Oscar) – the first surprise of the film. Instead of turning Little into a petty criminal or a low life he invites him into his house where he and his sweet girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) become surrogate parents. Juan even teaches him how to swim and float in the ocean, holding him in the water in a scene that's almost a crystal clear baptism metaphor, initiating Little into a life where he might just be able to be himself and have people love him for it.

The other surprise is the cinematic toolkit Jenkins wields to tell the story. The soundtrack in particular is as impactful as it is eclectic, mixing classical music with gangbager rap and everything in between.

The second and third acts depict Little as he grows up, calling himself in his teens by his real name Chiron and later (after doing a stint inside for dealing – so maybe Juan's influence was more destructive than anyone realises) as Black. Kevin becomes a pivotal presence in his life during a night on the beach when they're teens and later when Black reconnects with him, still wondering what the moment they shared really meant.

The performances by all three actors who play the growing protagonist are all understated and muted and nobody else showboats very much either (with the execption of Harris once or twice, although the script calls for it).

A lot of the critical commentary about the film was about the cinematography and aesthetic, and a lot of reviews mentioned a dreamlike quality. It doesn't let you too close to the hero of the tale because the kid/boy/man doesn't speak much, but with the performances he gets from each actor, the supports he surrounds them with and the filmmaking craft around everyone else, Jenkins has made a film that nevertheless draws you in and you somehow feel every pinched-back teardrop and flush of anger.

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