Moonlight: Golden Globe winner a wonderfully affecting drama

Three hours in, it seemed pretty safe to assume Barry Jenkins’ subtle and powerful independent character drama would go home empty handed Sunday.

Things changed drastically, though, when “Moonlight” ended the night with the Hollywood Foreign Press Association’s biggest prize: the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama.

“Moonlight” was an unexpected winner after coming up just short in Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Supporting Actress (Naomie Harris), Best Director (Jenkins), Best Score and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The film is a heartfelt, emotional journey told in three parts about Chiron, a young African-American boy growing up with a drug-addicted single mother living in Miami. Throughout the feature, Chiron struggles to find positive influences and role models as he seeks to find his own identity, both sexually and emotionally.

Each segment attacks Chiron’s journey of self-discovery differently from a cinematic and storytelling perspective. In segment one, 10-year-old Chiron a.k.a. Little (Alex Hibbert) hides from bullies in an abandoned motel where he is found and mentored by drug dealer Juan (Ali). Segment two features teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) dealing with his mother Paula’s (Harris) full blown drug addiction and a homosexual relationship with his best friend Kevin. In segment three, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) grows up to become a drug dealer known simply as Black and reconnects with Kevin after years of separation.

The choice to have three different actors play Chiron over the course of his life is an inspired decision by Jenkins, who perfectly casts similar, yet distinctive performers to interpret the character in their own way. The changes in Chiron performance to performance perfectly encapsulate how life changes an individual as they grow up. Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes all deliver with strong individual performances that could be award-worthy as supporting nominations, but are better in lockstep as one transformative experience. 

“Moonlight” also serves as a landmark feature for veteran character actors Ali and Harris, who are both sure to be nominated for Academy Awards in respective supporting acting categories.

As the only character to appear in all three segments, Harris is devastatingly effective as Paula. Her performance is elegantly layered segment to segment as we see the strong, confident single mother drift away into drug-addled rage and depression over the course of the film. Her work in segment two is especially chilling and worth an awards shortlist on its own.

Ali, best known for his supporting work on Netflix’s “House of Cards,” elevates his game to another level as Juan, the charismatic drug dealer with a soft spot for Little. His ability to give Juan equal parts hard edge from life selling on street corners and comforting empathy is remarkable. Performed even slightly differently softer or harder, Juan becomes a caricature. But Ali is bittersweet and affecting, toeing the exact line with ease.

Jenkins, who adapted the script from Tarell McCraney’s semiautobiographical unproduced play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” shows an adept hand at both screenwriting and directing that belie his relative inexperience making movies. “Moonlight” is just his second feature after 2008’s “Medicine For Melancholy,” though the past eight years seem well spent with “Moonlight” as the fruits of his effort.

“Moonlight” shines brightest visually, with cinematographer James Laxton beautifully giving a distinctive, uniquely vibrant feel to each of the film’s three segments. Each segment has its own visual hue, as if they were all shot in different film stock. 

The most powerful and memorable scene in “Moonlight,” Juan teaching Chiron how to swim in segment one, is effective as much for Laxton’s stunning camera work in the scene as Ali’s masterful acting performance. The camera bobs up and down in the water, floating above the surface and crashing below with the waves in a captivatingly intimate portrayal of humanity you wouldn’t expect from a swimming lesson.

A Golden Globes win boosts the chances for “Moonlight” to take home Best Picture honors at next month’s Academy Awards, but the film will have to contend with Hollywood love letter “La La Land,” which swept all seven categories it was nominated in at Sunday’s Globes. 

Perhaps the best bet for Oscars love will come in Best Supporting Actor, where Ali will be a frontrunner alongside Jeff Bridges for “Hell or High Water” and most likely won’t contend with Golden Globe winner Aaron Taylor-Johnson of “Nocturnal Animals,” who may not even receive a nomination from Academy voters.

While occasionally slow, “Moonlight” is dramatically better than most large independent content you’ll find in cinemas these days and something ardent movie lovers need to see at least once early this year whether in theaters or later on DVD. 

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