Waxing or Waning?


Seldom do I go to see a movie where I know so little about the plot as this one. I knew it was a “coming of age” drama about a young man growing up in a black neighbourhood in Miami. Period. That ignorance was bliss (so that’s the way this review will stay: I will avoid my usual high-level summary here). For there are twists in this story that you don’t see coming, and moments of such dramatic force that they are cinematically searing.

Running scared. The supremely impressive Ashton Sanders.

Playing the young man, Chiron, over three stages of his life are the actors Alex Hibbert,  Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. However, Mahershala Ali, who plays Juan – the drug dealer with a heart – has been the one with all the awards visibility (having this week won the Screen Actors Guild Supporting Actor award, as well as being within the ensemble cast award for the upcoming “Hidden Numbers”). For the avoidance of doubt, Ali and all of these other actors are excellent, as is Jharrel Jerome (in his feature film debut) as  Chiron’s 16-year old friend Kevin. But the performance that really spoke to me was that of Ashton Sanders, who has both an uplifting and heartbreaking role as the “middle” Chiron and delivers it supremely well. A real breakout role for him.

Talking man-stuff on the beach. Chiron (Ashton Sanders) and Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).

Also shining with a dramatic and extremely emotional performance is London’s own Naomie Harris (“Spectre“), justifiably nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar. Unlike last year’s insipid and dull “Our Kind of Traitor“, where she was given criminally little to do, here she is blisteringly real as a caring mother spiralling down an addiction plug-hole. A career best.

More ‘Money-10-cent’ than Moneypenny. Naomie Harris as a mother in freefall.

Grammy-nominated musician Janelle Monáe, in her feature film debut, is also eminently watchable alongside Mahershala Ali as Juan’s girlfriend Teresa.

Above all, this powerful ensemble is the best evidence possible that the diversity arguments all over last year’s Oscars were 100% correct. These are all indisputably realistic performances by black actors that must surely move viewers regardless of their colour or creed.

The film has eight Oscar nominations, and I definitely agree with the acting nominations to Maharhala Ali and Naomie Harris. I’d also agree with the award for music to Nicolas Britell (“The Big Short”) which is astonishingly eclectic and jarringly appropriate to the story that unfolds. I could even go along with the Best Film Editing nomination, although I am hardly an expert in the subject. 

A guy who’s dentist has a Ferrari. Chiron as “Black” (Trevante Rhodes)

The remaining nominations are for Best Picture, Best Director (Barry Jenkins), Best Writing Adapted Screenplay (also Barry Jenkins) and Best Cinematography (James Laxton). However, here my opinion diverges with the Academy and – I suspect – many critics. Yes, this is a really engrossing film with a fine and surprisingly non-standard Hollywood ending. It is certainly well worth watching, but is it a top film of the year?  No, I don’t think so. There are some aspects of the film that just plain irritated me.

Firstly, the camera work is frequently of the hand-held variety, particularly in the first half of the film, that leads to a serious case of seasickness if you are sitting anywhere other than the back row of the cinema. 

More crucially for me, the film introduces two fantastic and atypical characters, but then – inexplicably – the script just unceremoniously dumps them with hardly any further reference made. I found that enormously frustrating and mystifying and spent the rest of the film waiting for a closure that never came.

Hitting all the right notes. Janelle Monáe showing real screen presence.

There is also enormously pervasive use of the “N-word”, right from the opening music track. I appreciate this is probably perfectly appropriate to the ‘hood that the characters occupy, but the continual usage is shocking (at least to a white audience). It is probably designed to shock, but after a while the shock wears off and it becomes more tiresome than offensive. 

Based on all the Oscar hype then, this was a bit of a disappointment. But that view is purely relative to all of the great Oscar Best Film candidates I’ve seen in the last few weeks. It is still a very interesting film due to the story that goes off in a novel and surprising direction, and one that is worthy of your movie dollar investment.

Fad Rating:  FFFf.