I had hoped to see “Moonlight” back last year in hopes of including it in my best films of 2016 annual review.
The film has had ridiculously good reviews, earning a nearly perfect score on Metacritic (99) and coming close on Rotten Tomatoes as well — 98 percent of critics and 88 percent of the audience liked it. It won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture — Drama and was nominated for five more. And, it’s nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Seriously, people have been losing their minds over this film.
I didn’t manage to catch it in 2016, but with the recent Oscar nominations, many contenders have been released back into mainstream theaters, and “Moonlight” is one of them.
Honestly, I was hoping to catch another movie after because I didn’t have a clue what I would say. “Moonlight” is, in many ways, indescribable. It’s the story of a young black man named Chiron growing up in Miami, and it’s told in three parts.
In the first section, Chiron is a gay adolescent played by Alex R. Hibbert — in his first role ever, according to IMDB. Chiron, or Little as the other kids call him because of his small stature, is a lonely child — he’s only got one friend — who is bullied and teased by almost all of his classmates. Things aren’t much better at home where his mom, Paula, (Naomie Harris) is distant and takes drugs. Luckily, he meets a crack dealer — which is never a phrase I thought I’d say — named Juan (Mahershala Ali) who takes Chiron under his wing and offers him a safe space at the home he shares with his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae).
The second part features a teenage, still skinny Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders). He still only has his one friend, Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), and Paula is a full-blown crack addict and prostitute. Juan is dead, but Teresa’s home is still a haven away from the madness of the world. Kevin and Chiron have an intimate experience before violence erupts and Chiron is torn from the hell he’s living in.
And finally, we have the third chapter in Chiron’s life. He’s now an adult played by Trevante Rhodes, and he goes by the name of Black. He’s now heavily muscled and a drug dealer. He’s still incredibly lonely, though, and has no real connections with anyone from his past, although Paula still calls. It isn’t until he receives a phone call from Kevin (now played by André Holland), whom he hasn’t seen in a decade, that things have the potential to change.
That’s a whole lot of summarizing and set up, but honestly, I think I need all of that in order to make things make sense.
“Moonlight” is extremely simplistic in its storytelling. It’s an intimate portrait of this young man that is almost painful to watch at times. Chiron doesn’t have much to say, whether by choice or because he doesn’t think anyone would want to hear it. He walks with slumped shoulders and a bowed head. His eyes are full of pain and a longing for acceptance. He silently begs to be accepted from every single person he comes into contact with, and he’s brushed aside, even by his own mother.
The film isn’t rushed in anything it does. It’s slow and methodical, and even feels excruciatingly painful in its pacing at times, although the timing fits. After all, Chiron leads a horrible life, and we all know that time can crawl when you’re miserable.
The actors and this story are at the heart of the film. There aren’t splashy effects or a soundtrack so powerful it becomes its own character. The character work is what sells the film. The transition as Chiron grows from boy to man is seamless, and it carries us with it. Each actor is as believable as the last and together create one character. The audience buys that these three men are playing the same guy. It’s really well done.
In many ways, “Moonlight” is a powerful film that needs to be seen. The story is simple and not really revolutionary, but it still manages to say a lot about a certain portion of society. It makes us think not only about homosexuality but also black culture and its own treatment of homosexuality. It’s an important film. It’s a notable film. It’s a film that has a message that demands to be heard.
But, it’s also a film that I can’t say I enjoyed. Director Barry Jenkins and cinematographer James Laxton walked a fine line between clever camera work and sea sickness. For the record, it’s nominated for a cinematography Oscar as well, but it wouldn’t have my vote.
But beyond that, I just can’t say that “Moonlight” is how I’m happy I spent my afternoon matinee. It’s beautifully acted, and the story is powerful, but honestly, it’s not a film that I “liked” watching. Maybe that means I’m not deep enough or in tune with what’s going on in my world. Honestly, with the current state of our country, I wish I didn’t know as much as I do.
Maybe I just wasn’t in the mood for such a somber look at life. Bottom line, “Moonlight” is a great movie but many of the things that could be considered positives in the film also proved to be negatives for me.