Moonlight: A Success in Poetic Empathy

By: Nathan Ridings

Moonlight follows Chiron, a young, black, and closeted gay man as he navigates three distinct periods in his life. These three stages occur when the character is approximately eight, fifteen, and twenty-five years old. Each stage of Chiron is played by a different actor.

Though one might predict that this method would create inconsistencies among the three segments, each actor plays the character beautifully, and Chiron still feels like a whole and complete character throughout. This is achieved by common physical mannerisms and character tendencies. Act III Chiron does things the Act I Chiron learned to do, and that consistency connects the stages astonishingly well. Each of the supporting performances were admirable, especially that of Mahershala Ali.

I have very few problems with Moonlight, and I’m going to discuss them now so I don’t have to later. First, an antagonistic character in the second act that felt two dimensional. He seemed to serve as a plot device and a catalyst for the protagonist rather than an actual person. Secondly, the cinematography, though usually beautifully and masterfully done, was occasionally a little too active and moving for the scene it was portraying. These, however, are minor flaws and are easily outweighed by the many great aspects of the film.

Moonlight tackles many subject matters, including hyper masculinity, suppressed homosexuality, drug addiction (as well as its effect on a family dynamic), poverty, and the pains of solitude. Though one might expect these many themes to interfere with each other, the opposite is true. Each theme builds upon the others intricately, and they all culminate in a complex, authentic, and thoroughly engaging story and protagonist.

The film has a poetic, lyrical heft that many films have sought but never found. Each shot is beautifully captured, and the film carries itself with a vibrancy and life-like nature that is hard to describe beyond simply calling it a living and breathing work of art. This is aided by the score, which ebbs and flows with the protagonist’s emotional state. The lighting also plays an extremely influential part in creating Moonlight’s mood and atmosphere. Carefully colorful visual pallets compliment the emotional circumstances of the characters both subtly and beautifully, and the actors and settings are both gorgeously illuminated in each scene.  Both of these attributes help to create a unique and absorbing poetic feel that softly pushes the film onward.

More than anything, when I watch films, I look for authenticity in the characters and the environment. Beyond my objective reasoning, I judge a film on whether the story feels true and real. This authenticity is my ultimate indicator in deciding if I think a film is worthy of praise, and I can confidently say that Moonlight succeeds by this measure in every account. Chiron’s struggles feel real, and, although I haven’t experienced most of the challenges he must overcome in the film, I can relate to and sympathize with his character through each challenge he faces. This strong and personal connection to the protagonist, to me, raises Moonlight from a great film to phenomenal one. It is the reason I watch movies, and it carries an emotional significant in a way I have only seen a handful of times in my life. It is not to be missed.

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