A somber journey of self discovery.
Moonlight took home Best Picture at the Oscars this last year, and aside from being a good film, it also shows that independent films can compete with big budget productions. Oddly, a lot of people seem to love to hate this movie. Don’t believe me? Check out the user ratings on the link above. People really hate that a movie about a gay black man could possibly be popular. (But of course, they aren’t racist or homophobic…)
Anyway, Moonlight is carried by excellent acting. The plot is minimal. The story is more concerned with real life struggles and the numerous small acts of hatred or kindness that come toward people every day. The people seem real. Let me be clear here that does not mean they are all likable. Each character is deeply flawed and exists within a deeply flawed system. The best example of this is Juan (Mahershala Ali), a hardened drug dealer who befriends young Chiron (Alex Hibbert). Chiron is the main character of the film, but the early encounters with Juan show how complex the world in which they exist in actually is.
Juan cares for Chiron, and becomes a surrogate father, but Juan is also the main supplier of drugs to Chiron’s addict mother. We as the audience are conflicted, are we meant to hate the addicted mother Paula (who is played excellently by Naomie Harris) because she is cruel? Or, are we meant to love Juan because he is kind, funny, and soft-spoken? Or, are we meant to sympathize with Paula because she is a victim of Juan? The film doesn’t offer easy answers to these questions, and at least for me, I debated my stances after the film had ended.
The relationship detailed above only covers the first third of the film. Chiron grows up, and in his teenager years (the role is taken over by Ashton Sanders) he begins to explore his sexuality. Chiron is bullied immensely, and is constantly called a faggot, attacked, and appears incredibly isolated. This section of the film rang most powerfully to me, but that is not to say the other two chunks are not well done. The film ends with a now adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) further exploring who he is, who he wants to be, and where he belongs in the world.
There are no car chases or shootouts, so that likely excludes this film from a lot of peoples interests. The subtlety of the story works for the most part, and the kind look, touch, or embrace contains a lot of narrative power here.
Overall, the narrative and the acting are superb. The film was made on a shoestring budget, and chose wisely to rely on authentic characters more than anything else. The camerawork of the film sways and bounces in an almost dreamlike manner. About 80% of the time it works well, the other 20% of the time it is annoying as hell. The part with Juan and Chiron swimming (if you’ve seen it you know what I am talking about) was obnoxious to watch. The enchanting nature of the film breaks down in these moments. As said, a lot of the time it works, but when it doesn’t—it really doesn’t.
My only other gripe with the film is while Chiron is acted well he isn’t written as well, and by that I mean he doesn’t communicate clearly, if this were a novel we could get into his head more. There are narrative reasons for his introvertedness (I am not sure that is a word), but that doesn’t make some of the moments any less frustrating. In a weird way, the flaws of the film wouldn’t stand out so strongly if the rest of the film wasn’t so good. Director Barry Jenkins had a clear vision to articulate here, and he is mostly successful.
If you are interested in seeing a contemplative drama with great acting, this is your film. People interested in narrative as a whole will enjoy this movie. Sure, it isn’t perfect, but few films are. 9.5/10