Here’s a little obscurity that has a whopping 98 percent Tomatometer as of this writing. I’ve read so many glowing reviews for this arthouse darling that there was no way I wasn’t going to review it when given the chance. Alas, while Moonlight isn’t exactly a bad film, it still fell way short of its reputation.
This is the story of Chiron (pronounced “shy-rone”), a young man growing up in the slums of Miami. It’s bad enough that he’s the son of an absentee father and a crack whore (Paula, played by Naomie Harris), but Chiron happens to be a gay man growing up in a poor black community crawling with drug dealers and addicts. It’s not a good situation.
The film is structured as a triptych, broken up into three distinct chapters with several years between each. In the first one, we follow Chiron as a kid (played by Alex Hibbert), when he barely speaks a word and doesn’t seem to do much of anything. So he’s a bully target on top of being damaged by his dysfunctional family.
The good news is that Chiron is befriended by a couple of surrogate parental figures: Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae, of all people). They’re both loving and patient enough to give Chiron the shelter he needs, but also just strict enough to provide some badly needed structure and discpline. The bad news is, Juan is a drug dealer. And also, he disappears without a trace after the first chapter. Really, what’s up with that?
In the second chapter, Chiron is an adolescent (and played by Ashton Sanders). At this point, he’s spent roughly fifteen years surrounded by his rapidly degrading mother, his loving surrogate parents who really aren’t any relation to him, and all the little wannabe gangsters who keep bullying him. All throughout this second chapter (and also in the first, but it’s really prevalent in the second), there’s the question of how Chiron will process all these different influences and choose his future path. Will he stay in the crime-ridden slums or will he somehow find a way to rise above and make an honest life?
Without spoiling anything by directly answering that question, I can say that Chiron’s path is made clear when things finally come to a head at the end of the second chapter. Thus the third chapter shows us Chiron as an adult (now played by Trevante Rhodes), grappling with that one fateful decision that made him who and what he is.
If the film does any one thing particularly well, it’s to show ambiguity where it’s very rarely seen in film and TV. So many characters in this film are drug dealers, yet we’re also made to see that these same criminals can be compassionate and sympathetic people. Far more impressively, the filmmakers do this in such a way that it doesn’t excuse or justify the terrible crimes they commit. While Paula is very much a drug addict, her development arc is drawn in such a way that we don’t pick up on that fact straight away. She looks to all the world like just another struggling single mom until things finally start to go sideways. And at the end of her arc, Paula acknowledges that she was a shitty parent, but she still only wanted the best for her son and loved him dearly.
To be clear, it’s not like this is the first attempt at humanizing drug dealers or drug addicts — “The Wire” is still more or less the definitive work on the subject where mainstream pop culture is concerned. Yet the fact remains that this movie was able to do such a beautiful job of it with only two hours’ screen time, and that’s a deeply impressive feat. Additionally, I want to stress again that this is a moral balancing act that very few in Hollywood ever dare to attempt, and it’s so much more rarely done in such an even-handed and compassionate way.
Major kudos are due to the actors here, all of whom succeed in making their characters jump right off the screen. It’s a tall order portraying a drug dealer who’d make a plausible and 100 percent trustworthy father figure, but Mahershala Ali somehow makes it work. Janelle Monae already had a ton of charisma as an egregiously underrated musician, and she positively lights up the screen. Naomie Harris’ character really gets put through the wringer in this movie, and she sells every last heartbreaking moment like a champ. But of course the real stars here are the three actors playing our lead role, all of whom are able to convey so much about who Chiron is and what he’s going through without a word said.
Then we have the “homosexual romance” angle, which is another thing you still don’t see very much of in film or TV. Certainly not to the point where we actually see our two gay lovers go through their courtship, sex, heartbreak, etc. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As much as this is Chiron’s story, it’s also very much the story of Kevin, both of whom grow up on parallel storylines. As a kid (played by Jaden Piner), Kevin is Chiron’s best friend, one of the precious few who stand by Chiron through all the shit he goes through. Not that Kevin can do much, only being nine years old, but still.
As a teenager (now played by Jharrel Jerome), Kevin is still best friends with Chiron, but now there’s a chance for the two of them to become something more. Except that they’re both still growing up in a place and time that’s exceptionally dangerous for being a young gay man. So then the big turning point happens at the end of the second chapter and the two have a massive falling-out that lasts for a solid decade.
Cut to the third chapter, when Kevin (played as an adult by Andre Holland) gets back in touch with Chiron. Except that now, the both of them have taken such radically different life choices that they barely have anything in common. Kevin has a kid and an ex-wife, for God’s sake. So there’s the very real question of whether they can still rekindle that old romance, whether it’s worth rekindling, and whether it was ever there at all. So much water has gone under the bridge, and they parted on such heartless terms, is it worth the effort or even possible to let bygones be bygones and start over? What even are these two guys who grew up together and haven’t seen or heard from each other in a decade?
Again, it speaks volumes that such a small and intimate story could be made so compelling. A lot of that — again — has to do with the actors involved and the superlative performances they turn in. But there’s also the novelty factor — how often does anyone see a homosexual romance in film or TV so much complexity and sincerity?
Such a damn shame the film has a lame non-ending, such that everything unravels without really making a point.
I’m sorry to say that the film gets way too pretentious for its own good on quite a few occasions. A prominent example concerns the color blue — it’s like the filmmakers were trying to use blue as some kind of artistic motif, but the color is so overused that it loses all meaning. And there are a couple of “artsy” shots of kids playing near the beach, just appearing out of nowhere and apropos of nothing (again, the ending is a prime example of this). There’s also the interstitial segments, as a strange shot of a single blinking light takes us from what chapter to another. Hell if I could tell you what that’s all about.
On a technical level, the film is regrettably subpar. The shaky-cam is abused, the sound mixing renders some dialogue inaudible, the clumsy editing leads to all sorts of continuity gaffes, and some shots are loaded with annoying lens flares. That isn’t even getting started on the score, which whiplashes between earth-shattering rap music and overbearing orchestral tracks. Put all of this together and the filmmakers were quite clearly drawing attention to themselves, which is anathema to a film that depends on suspending disbelief and maintaining the illusion that these characters are real people.
Moonlight certainly isn’t a bad film, but it’s definitely overrated. The filmmakers deserve a ton of credit for telling a bold story with so much timely material that precious few other filmmakers would barely touch. And I can’t possibly heap enough praise onto the actors involved. Alas, it’s hard for me to call the film a masterpiece when the film is so technically deficient. The script and the cast are clearly there, but Barry Jenkins was way out of his depth as a director.
This one is absolutely worth checking out if you have the opportunity, but I wouldn’t recommend going out of your way for it.
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