With beautifully pitched performances, a moving story and a willingness to trade showy for subtle, Moonlight deserves all the attention and awards nominations it’s getting
Moonlight (15) *****
Fences (12A) ****
Lego Batman Movie (U) ****
20th Century Women (15) ****
Prevenge (15) ***
Moonlight has become the little film that could: an artful indie movie dealing with difficult themes that has somehow managed to become a minor box-office hit and the year’s second most nominated Oscar-contender. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins (who adapted it from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue), it’s certainly an unusual awards front-runner. This is a film in which the performances are subtle and small, the writing poetic and elliptical and the visuals haunting and expressionistic. Yet it’s precisely these qualities that seem to have won through, elevating a story about a black American male negotiating a life blighted by poverty, drug addiction and sexual and racial prejudice into a sublime coming-of-age drama in which the politics of identity are delicately and beautifully essayed.
Split into three distinct chapters, each named after its protagonist at three stages in his life, the film follows Chiron: first as a scrawny ten-year-old nicknamed “Little” (Alex Hibbert), then as an introverted teen (Ashton Sanders) who goes by his given name and finally as an unsure-of-himself 20-something (Trevante Rhodes) whose use of the moniker “Black” is part of a protective armour wholly unsuited to his true self. Throughout, Chiron is wrestling not just with his sexuality, but also with the profound lack of love in his life, a consequence of a neglectful mother (powerfully played by Naomie Harris), whose drug addiction blinds her to his own craving for affection, and whose existence continues to haunt him like crack does her.
Chiron does have people in his life looking out for him, though. After rescuing him from a beating, a local drug dealer called Juan (Mahershala Ali) takes him in and, with his partner Teresa (Janelle Monáe), becomes a de facto foster parent. But as Little gets older, they’re less able to protect him and, save for an intense sexual encounter with a boy in his class that’s quickly complicated by violence, he tries to suppress any yearnings he might have, be they sexual or emotional.
Those feelings don’t go away, of course, and the key to the film’s success – aside from the uniformly meticulous performances – is the way Jenkins fills it with grace notes that builds a tender portrait of the cumulative impact that moments both small and large can have when it comes to defining and shaping a life.
In contrast to Moonlight, it would be easy to critique Denzel Washington’s multi-Oscar-nominated Fences for being “stagey” simply because it’s a relatively faithful adaptation of a Pulitzer prize-winning play by the late August Wilson. Washington previously won a Tony award for his role in the 2010 Broadway production and, as the director of this film version, he’s opened it out beyond its 1950s Pittsburgh backyard setting only in as much as there are some establishing shots showing his character, Troy Maxson, at work. But within minutes of the film starting, Washington and co-lead Viola Davis deliver Wilson’s loquacious dialogue with such dazzling force that their combined screen presence renders any thoughts about the cinematic limitations of his approach obsolete. In fact, the contained setting actually works to the film’s advantage, clearing the way for Washington to provide a front row seat to a masterclass in screen acting. Both make their characters’ long, declamatory marital conversations feel off-the-cuff and thematically relevant, as if these words are exploding out of them after too many years of forcibly biting their tongues to negotiate the strictures of life together in an overtly racist society.
Deconstruction seems to be the name of the game when it comes to stop-motion animation movies built around the endless creative possibilities of Lego. Following the Charlie Kaufman-esque The Lego Movie comes The Lego Batman Movie – a funny, post-modern riff on the entire canon of big and small screen adaptations of the Caped Crusader. Kicking off with a pitch-perfect spoof of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, it finds Batman (a growling Will Arnett) forced to confront his own self-imposed loneliness after spurning the Joker (Zach Galifianakis), who just wants some acknowledgment that he’s Batman’s greatest nemesis. The film also features Channing Tatum as Superman and amusing digs at the awful Suicide Squad.
In 20th Century Women, Beginners director Mike Mills returns with another semi-autobiographical film, this time based on his teenage memories of his mother: a staunch feminist, inveterate smoker and, by this fictionalised account, all-round awesome woman. Set in 1979, the film zeroes in on single mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) and her decision to recruit her artist lodger (Greta Gerwig) and teenage neighbour (Elle Fanning) to help raise her teenage son (Lucas Jade Zumann). Mills brings the era alive with spot-on pop culture asides, but he smartly makes the movie all about Bening, who crafts a brilliant portrait of a woman unwilling to pamper her son or shield him from the realities of her own life in all its messy complexity.
Motherhood is also the subject of Prevenge, the directorial debut of Sightseers co-writer and star Alice Lowe. Revolving around a pregnant woman (Lowe) who embarks on a killing spree, the film treats pregnancy as kind of weird sci-fi horror experience in which every hormonally charged fear and emotion is intensified by everyone else projecting their own misconceptions onto the expectant mother.
In an act of quasi-method filmmaking, Lowe conceived,
wrote and shot the film over a few weeks when she was heavily pregnant. Perhaps as a consequence, the execution is a little amateurish, but it’s watchable enough. ■