Moonlight (15, 111 mins, ★★★★)

If La La Land carries away the Best Picture Oscar this year (to follow up it’s Bafta success) it will be a travesty. Despite the endless hype, the Hollywood-set musical, starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, is an irredeemably average and unoriginal love story that’s low on energy, invention and memorable tunes. Like its director Damien Chazelle’s previously over-lauded effort, Whiplash, it’s superficial in the extreme, to boot.

La La Land’s seemingly inevitable victory would be a pity not only because it’s dross, but also, more importantly, because there are a number of other Best Picture contenders that are many times better.

Arrival and Hell or High Water would both be worthier winners, while the idea that anyone would reckon La La Land to be superior to the magnificent Manchester by the Sea leaves me despairing for the human race. And then there’s Moonlight, another film that deserves far more than to trail behind Gosling and co.

Writer-director Barry Jenkins’s film, based on a play, tells the story of Chiron, a black boy in Miami trying to come to terms with his homosexuality. In three chapters, the film traces Chiron’s transformation from a nervous child to an anxious high school student and, finally, to a swaggering, muscle-bound drug dealer. It’s a tour de force on many levels. Jenkins controls the pacing expertly, with the first two sections building steadily towards an explosive, violent conclusion. The third act features the grown-up Chiron attempting to reconnect with his one and only lover. It’s a masterful scene as we are shown, despite Chiron’s brash gangster persona (embellished with fake gold teeth), the damage and sadness that have become part of his very being.

The three actors playing Chiron (Alex R Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes) are all superb, with the character’s halting shyness at the core of all of their performances. The idea that this trio of actors are one and the same person convinces totally. The images Jenkins conjures frequently surprise and unsettle; the way the characters are tracked and focused in on recall Gus Van Sant’s mesmeric Elephant.

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