Moonlight is a quietly revolutionary film about race in the States

A review of the stellar Barry Jenkins movie, a Jordanian prison comedy and a boxer biopic, screened at TIFF.

Mahershala Ali in Moonlight

Yesterday, I legitimately caught myself wondering what my real life was like. What did I do every day before this? Time has lost all quantifiable measurements. It sometimes feels as though TIFF will never stop, even though the majority of my movie-viewing is already done. I had the opportunity to be here longer than before this year, but nine days mainlining movies seems like a little bit of overkill on the eighth day. That having been said, I still haven’t seen Arrival, so I can’t possibly be thinking of going home, can I?


The buzz on this film is deafening, and it’s not hard to see why. It’s delicately constructed in a way that brings to mind European directors way before it brings any Americans to mind. It tells the story of someone woefully misrepresented in narrative cinema, and it tells a story about race in America without employing any white people at all. (As far as I can tell, there isn’t even a white extra in the film.) All these things seem fairly innocuous on paper yet they come across as quietly revolutionary in Barry Jenkins’Moonlight. It tells the story of Chiron, a young black man growing up in Florida in the ’90s.

We first meet him at roughly age 10. Picked on by his classmates and neglected by his substance-abusing mother (Naomie Harris), he develops a friendship with a local drug dealer (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend (Janelle Monáe). We then meet him as a teenager, struggling with his own sexuality as bullying and ostracization increases, and finally as an adult, having fallen into much the same path as his mentor despite everything about his personality pointing to the contrary.

It’s often beautiful and moving, though I have to admit it didn’t hit me as hard as the hype seemed to suggest it would. Jenkins’ style is lyrical and highly visual in a way that some have compared to Wong Kar-Wai — it’s an accurate description but WKW is a filmmaker whose films have always left me colder than I anticipated, so no big surprise there. I tend to be in the minority when it comes to that particular battle.

Moonlight is slated for release in October or November.

Blessed Benefit


Ahmad Thaher (right) in Blessed Benefit

One of the only “this is playing and I have nothing else to do” picks I’ve had at the fest so far, Blessed Benefit is a low-key (borderline catatonic) comedy set in the world of Jordanian prisons. Our protagonist is Ahmad, a hangdog Jeff Goldblum-looking contractor who winds up in jail for minor fraud. He expects his cousin to find a way to raise bail money, but his cousin’s not in a much better position, and he soon finds himself navigating the manipulative waters of the prison’s social economy.

It’s possible that some of Blessed Benefit was lost in translation. There are some scenes that play out with the rhythms of something like Curb Your Enthusiasm but without any of the jokes. (At one point, Ahmed’s cousin has to procure a sheep for whatever reason; the sheep escapes from his clutches, but he catches it, and this is played as if it were a scene in a gritty documentary about catching sheep and a Benny Hill skit, simultaneously.)  I still think that even with more expressive subtitles, the film’s complete lack of propulsion sinks it. It’s just not that funny or that compelling, essentially reducing it to 83 minutes of a confused looking dude confirming that he does not, in fact, know what’s going on.

Blessed Benefit does not have a release date.

Bleed for This

Miles Teller in Bleed for This

Not every boxer needs a film made about them, and not every up-and-coming young male star needs to play a boxer to give themselves cred. That’s mostly the takeaway from Bleed for This, a serviceable though thoroughly mediocre biopic of boxer Vinny Paz (Miles Teller). A pretty good light welterweight boxer, Paz starts boxing at a higher class with the encouragement of his coach (Aaron Eckhart, doing credible character work with an unfortunate receding hairline and potbelly). The gamble pays off, and Paz eventually wins a championship, only to break his neck in a freak car accident. With a halo and screws in his head to facilitate the healing, Vinny decides to ignore doctors’ orders and start training again.

There’s only one thing to differentiate Paz from most of the other boxers of his ilk, and that thing happens one hour into a movie that otherwise feels very much like content hitting every kilometre marker on the road to mediocrity. It’s both an underdog boxing movie and a disease-of-the-week movie; even if everyone gives it their best shot (which they do), it trades almost entirely in well-weathered tropes. There are people who love boxing movies so much that they’re happy to watch minute variations on the same thing over and over again — I’m not one of them.

Bleed for This is slated for release in November.

TIFF continues through Sept. 18. See our previous TIFF 2016 reportshere.