Sunday, March 5, 2017

New Releases! (Oscar Catchup Edition): Moonlight (2016); Lion (2016)

Moonlight (2016)

Director: Barry Jenkins

A supremely deft and understated look at a young man's struggle with identity as he grows up in the unforgiving world of a poor community in the Miami, Florida area.

Divided into three distinct parts, Moonlight is the story of Chiron, a young, gay, African-American man who struggles to get by and figure out just who he is and wants to be. The first segment of the film depicts Chiron at roughly age 9 or 10. At this point in life, his homosexual orientation has emerged just enough that others tease and bully him at school. While being chased one day, a local drug dealer named Juan comes to his aid and eventually takes him under his wing a bit. As he deals with difficulties at home with his single mother and harassment at school, Juan and his girlfriend Teresa provide Chiron some sort of safe haven among the chaos. The second part of the film sees Chiron at age 15, where he continues to struggle with his sexuality. The bullying at his high school, coupled with further problems with his mother, become fierce enough that he eventually snaps and commits a serious crime. The movie then jumps ahead about a decade, where we see a completely transformed Chiron, who now calls himself "Black" and has taken on the life of a fully immersed drug dealer. He doesn't show it to anyone, but he still struggles with his sexuality and identity. When one of his old high school friends calls unexpectedly, Chiron is forced to reckon with aspects of himself that he has tried to bury for ten years.

Moonlight is far from your typical movie, in many ways. Firstly, the subject matter and the setting are rarely seen on the big screen. The poverty of places like where Chiron grows up is something that the more fortunate among us would like to ignore. The crime, general deprivation, and dog-eat-dog environment do not make for very glamorous tales. What a movie like Moonlight does, however, is offer us an incredibly genuine, humanist story that has every bit the dramatic power as similar tales set in more attractive and exotic places.

Lion (2016)

Director: Garth Davis

Certainly the most affecting movie in this year's crop of Best Picture nominees. It's a strong film, to be sure, although I don't have it quite as high as a few other nominees.

Based on a true story, Lion tells the tale of Saroo, a young boy from a small village in India who gets separated from his brother during a train ride and ends up over 1,600 miles away in Bangladesh. The five-year old boy, not knowing the local language or enough detail about his home town or his mother, manages to survive long enough to end up in an orphanage for a short time. Eventually, he is adopted by an Australian family and is sent to live with them. After nearly twenty years under their loving care, Saroo is stricken by a powerful need to find his original family. This seems an impossible task, given that Saroo still does not know the name of the town he is from or his original family name. He persists, though, and over the course of many months meticulously (even obsessively) using satellite images available on the Internet, he tracks down his village of birth.

Lion is certainly an extremely moving and very well-done film. It offers a view of rural and urban India and Pakistan that we in the West rarely get to see, which can certainly put certain values in perspective. The areas in which Saroo becomes lost and found are ones in which poverty has made an unnerving number of people desperate, which only makes them highly dangerous for the young Saroo. It also creates an effective contrast for the almost nirvana-like tranquility of his foster home in Tasmania. Of course, this tranquility is severely disturbed by the unexpected re-emergence of Saroo's long-buried desire to reunite with his family. All of these shifts in place and Saroo's disposition are handled extremely well, with the actors all doing exceptional work.

Like any movie which portrays real events, I am left to wonder if a few of the dramatic elements were "Hollywooded" up a little bit. While much of the story does ring quite true, there are a few aspects which I felt were a bit forced, or at the very least not completely relevant to Saroo's inner struggle and desire to find his Indian family. Anyone who hasn't seen the movie should also be warned not to expect much levity in this one. Yes, there are a handful of cute or amusing moments here and there, but Lion maintains a pretty somber and sometimes even depressing tone through much of its running length. This is as it should be, though, given the nature of Saroo's story. It is also given a touch of welcome buoyancy at the end, which prevents it from being a pure sob-fest.

Lion is a very well done film that, while focusing on a rather singular life and tale, opens up doors to much larger and far more uncomfortable realities about places and people not fortunate enough to live in more affluent conditions. This is actually what gives the story its heart, though. One might initially be tempted to wonder why Saroo, who has found much comfort in the arms of his foster parents, would want to return to his poverty-stricken birthplace. The answer touches on what makes certain bonds between people transcend other forms of comfort. While it's not a movie that I would feel the need to see again, it is one that I am glad to have seen the once.