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NYFF Previews: ‘Moonlight’

Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, is the white-hot star of the film festival circuit right now. It has already been screened at the Telluride Festival and the bigger Toronto International Film Festival to rave reviews. It will appear at the New York Film Festival on October 2nd. Moonlight is a movie you need to have your eye on as the autumn Oscar race begins its opening leg. You can see Moonlight yourself when it opens in theaters next month on October 21st.

The film is the story of Chiron, an alienated and lost person, during his childhood, teenage years, and young adulthood in Miami, Florida. As a child, Chiron is known as “Little” and as an adult, he is now called “Black”. Chiron’s three phases are played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and finally Trevante Rhodes through three chapters of the movie. His mother, Paula (Naomie Harris) is addicted to drugs. He is teased by the other children for his sexuality. Ultimately his only mentor and father figure is the local gangster, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who shows real love and compassion to the boy and admits very difficult truths.

Moonlight has a completely African American cast, to the point that the only white faces are a few background characters. The movie is handling universal themes of romance and isolation, but its main struggle is one unique to the hero’s race and class. This is a place where strength matters beyond all else, with homosexuality as an unforgivable weakness. Little/Chiron/Black must put up an aggressive front, hiding his true self from the world. He is molded by misfortune and separation into becoming a criminal himself. He must “get hard” while repressing himself into a cold lonely shell.

A Love Story in Three Parts

All three versions of Chiron in Moonlight are played with the same thoughtful quiet distance by all three actors. Their excellent performances come together into a single person through three stages of his life, mirroring each other’s beats and mannerisms perfectly. Moonlight accomplishes the same transcendent effect as Boyhood, only without the gimmick of twelve years of filming and still manages to tell a complete romance tale.

Chiron’s main love interest is the charming Kevin (André Holland/Jharrel Jerome/Jaden Piner), whose friendship and flirting creates the emotional center of the movie. Here again, through three actors, director Barry Jenkins creates another complete character. Their love is broken apart by misfortune. Ultimately Moonlight cumlinates in a tense confrontation between these two characters. It is a thrilling climax of emotion and longing.

The Academy Awards last year were heavily criticized for their lack of coverage for black actors, films, and directors. That puts Moonlight in a good strategic position this year, with the added bonus of also being a film for gay rights. But the Oscar horse race is going to be a minor part of Moonlight‘s legacy. This is a truly great film that should be remembered for a long time.

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