The Good: Wonderful acting, Amazing direction, Engaging pacing for the story
The Bad: Some minimally-developed characters
The Basics: Moonlight explores well three key points in the life of Chiron, a boy who transitions to manhood under very difficult conditions in urban America.
Whenever I write a review, I have to come up with tags for the review, which help index them and allow readers to find works with common writers, actors, directors, brands, etc. When I first encounter an actor, I have to consider if they merit a tag - if they are likely to be in other works I review or if people are likely to be interested in more works featuring them and want to find them easily. One of the actors whose career and trajectory I completely misjudged was Mahershala Ali. I first encountered Ali's work in the first season of The 4400 (reviewed here!) where he was used as a comparatively minor part of a large ensemble cast; I did not tag him for that work as a result. Since then, though, Ali has had prominent roles in some of my favorite works, like House Of Cards and recently in the first season of Luke Cage (reviewed here!). Now, Mahershala is winning awards left and right for his performance in Moonlight and that was more than enough for me to watch the film - without knowing anything else about it.
Moonlight is this year's Boyhood (reviewed here!) filling the niche during Oscar Pandering Season for a coming-of-age movie. Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight explores well the awkwardness and uncertainty of growing up. Jenkins deserves a lot of credit for creating a coming-of-age story that respectfully gives a voice to one of the most-neglected minorities within a fairly well-explored culture within American society; the young gay black man. Moonlight manages to feel very different from every film I've seen that explores black culture and it is unlike any coming out story that tends to be a staple in lgbt cinema.
Juan is a drug dealer in Miami who enters an abandoned house into which a child has run, fleeing his bullies. When the kid will not tell him his name, Juan calls him Little Man - Little for short. Juan wants to reunite Little with his family, so he takes him to Teresa, who gets him to open up. Little's name is Chiron and Juan returns him to his mother the next day, though she wants nothing to do with Juan. Chiron continues to be bullied, but Juan returns to his life and take him under his wing - teaching him to swim, giving him money and confronting Paula when he finds her getting high near his dealer's corner. When Little puts together that Juan sells drugs and his mom is addicted to drugs, he rejects Juan.
In high school, Chiron continues to be bullied and he tries his best to avoid his bullies. Chiron is gay and when his mother does not want him around, he stays at Teresa's house. Chiron's bullies mock him about how easy his mother is and Chiron struggles to avoid her and the thoughts he has of his friend, Kevin. To escape his misery, he goes to the beach at night, where he encounters Kevin and Kevin jerks him off. The next day, though, Kevin succumbs to peer pressure and beats up Chiron. Rather than rat on Kevin, Chiron returns to school the next day and knocks out the boy who put Kevin up to the bullying. Ten years later, Chiron is a drug kingpin in Atlanta, bulked up and taking crap from no one. Late one night, he gets a call from Kevin and he makes a trip back to Miami to see the man for whom he still carries a torch.
Moonlight is a deliberately difficult film, but it is quite good and it has an authentic feel to it. Young black people and people in the drug trade throw the word "nigger" around and the word pops up a lot in Moonlight; as offensive as the word is, its usage in the film helps to create an authentic atmosphere for the time and place. The bullying and drug use in Moonlight are realistic and unpleasant to watch, but the story of Chiron is remarkably engaging.
Chiron is a complicated young man and Moonlight illustrates well how one bad decision can turn a person's life from their chosen direction into a situation where they become exactly what they are attempting to avoid. Chiron explicitly rejects Juan and the thug lifestyle he represents and he spends his teenage years working to define himself, even though he is lonely and somewhat tormented. But when he takes a stand for himself, the assault he commits puts him in the system and he becomes the new Juan (in Atlanta). Moonlight illustrates well how cycles persist in cultures with limited opportunities, a lot of pressure, and few resources. Beyond the themes and archetypes, Chiron is well-presented as an introverted, smart, quiet character (from boyhood into manhood) who has distinct traits at all phases of his life (he mumbles, does not make eye contact, etc.).
The performances in Moonlight are universally impressive and they are highlighted well by Barry Jenkins's direction. Jenkins tells his story with an incredible attention to visual detail. In the final section of the story, for example, there is a wonderful moment when Kevin meets the bulked-up Chiron and does not recognize him; he barely looks at him. But their eyes meet and Kevin remembers him instantly. The magic of Jenkins's direction is that Jenkins has the important moment without both characters in the shot; the viewer knows that the recognition comes when the characters' eyes meet, but we only see each of the characters in separate shots.
Watching Moonlight is enough to be permanently baffled by how cinematic awards are nominated and granted. Mahershala Ali has been nominated (and won for several!) for a slew of Best Supporting Actor awards for his role in Moonlight. I've watched a lot of awards shows and there are a ton of actors who have had less screen time and smaller parts than Mahershala Ali as Juan, who have won Best Actor. At the flip side, it seems utterly ludicrous after watching Moonlight that the three actors who play Chiron would not be nominated together for a Best Actor award. The amazing aspect of the performances of Alex R. Hibbert (Little), Ashton Sanders (high school Chiron), and Trevante Rhodes (bulked-up Chiron) is that all three share some common idiosyncrasies. The three actors slouch and look away in such similar ways that they equally-define Chiron; the performances are so consistent that even with the three dramatically-different castings of the character, he would be recognizable to viewers throughout the film even if no one said his name!
Perhaps the most surprising performance in Moonlight comes from Naomie Harris. Harris plays Paula and the role is unlike anything else I have seen her in. Harris usually plays professionals (like in the James Bond films) and powerful badasses (as she did in 28 Days Later, reviewed here!). Paula is weak and broken, strung out on crack and Harris has a completely different physical presence in Moonlight than she does in her other works. Harris plays Paula as angry and desperate and she nails it. There is not a second that Harris is on screen where the viewer feels like they are watching Naomie Harris; she is Paula every second she is on screen!
Moonlight has some weird gaps in it. In order to tell the very specific story it is telling about Chiron and his relationship with Kevin, Paula's backstory is pretty much completely neglected. Similarly, Juan falls out of the narrative completely . . . even when Teresa remains. Chiron's story is essentially told in three slices, almost like snapshots, and the lack of transition between some of those slices - especially the second and third chapters - is frustrating.
Despite that, Moonlight is an intense and worthwhile, even when it is difficult.
[As this year's winner of the Best Picture Oscar, Moonlight is part of my Best Picture Project! Please check that out!]
For other works with Naomie Harris, please visit my reviews of:
Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World's End
Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest
For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2017 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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