Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders, Naomie Harris
Run Time: 1 hour 51 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Gay movies are tough. It’s difficult when your sexual identity is linked to a cornucopia of hot button issues, because the only wide-release gay movies that squeak by are the ones that interact directly with those issues. And you know where movies about social issues invariably end up? The whirling typhoon of overseriousness we call the Oscars. It’s a vicious cycle that has led to the most notable gay movies being the dour Philadelphia, the terrific but dour Brokeback Mountain, the ambiguously sullen Weekend, and f**king I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.
Moonlight is a member of that massively unpleasant genre, coupled with the even more primordially depressing genre of Oscarbait Movies About Black People. So it’s a damn miracle that it ended up being watchable and, in patches, occasionally splendid.
I’ll get through an entire Oscar slate one of these years!
Moonlight is divided into three distinct parts (because you know a movie’s great if it has chapter titles), each depicting a stage in the coming-of-age of Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teen, and Trevante Rhodes as an adult), a young gay man growing up in the mean streets of Miami.
To a lesser extent it is also about the people around him, at least to the degree that they influence the formation of his identity: his mother Paula (the lovely Naomie Harris, giving a performance that will inevitably be called “brave”), the drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe, whose transition from “R&B starlet” to “respectable actress” has been terrifyingly, imperceptibly fast), and his best friend Kevin (Jaden Pine, Jharrel Jerome, and American Horror Story: Roanoke’s André Holland).
Sidebar: Trevante Rhodes might hold the world record for Most Impossibly Buff Human Being Who Isn’t The Rock.
Moonlight is one of those movies that’s more fun to discuss than it is to sit through. As a portrait of a boy attempting to form an emotional, compassionate identity in a culture that values toughness and resilience, it’s an alternately warm and devastating character study. And probably the best thing about it is that it’s not explicitly about being gay. Although Chiron’s homosexuality informs every aspect of his stunted identity, it’s about the universal themes of love, self, and human connection. Of course, watching this all play out onscreen is about as exciting as watching an infomercial for socks.
To be fair, my brain doesn’t come equipped with the arthouse gland that allows people to sit through a long-winded parade of human misery and come out declaring it a masterpiece (I prefer short-winded parades with more stage blood). And while Moonlight is more than just misery porn, I find that it struggles to strike a balance between art and realism.
Most of the film is straight-laced, almost documentarian drama that uses long takes and naturalistic lighting to douse the film in the gritty reality of the Miami ghetto. But it takes random leaps into bold, colorful, almost Italian arthouse cinematography that feel completely disjointed, desperately jockeying for your attention. These movements come too infrequently to be anything other than distracting, and they’re not so gorgeous that the movie couldn’t have gone on without them. Especially in the third, weakest chapter, these intrusions almost feel like the film is mocking us for actually getting into the story.
Take the film’s best scene: A moonlit seaside conversation between two boys that carries oceans of meaning beneath tentative words. It’s stripped-down perfection, using nothing but dialogue and the human face to provoke mounting erotic tension in the audience. Moonlight is at its best when it’s simple, because its delusions of aesthetic grandeur merely remind you that the visual style is mostly less than phenomenal.
Although, who could complain about this shot?
Moonlight is more like a novel than a film, packed with subtext and recurring symbolism that’s a thrill to dissect, but could just has easily have been presented as a text piece rather than a work of cinema. As a story, it’s important and heartfelt. As a film it’s nonessential.
That’s perhaps not very fair to a film that showcases well-etched characters portrayed by a bevy of talented actors and promising newcomers, but it’s so dry you could use it to cure meat. I’m in no way saying that it’s bad. Moonlight is terrific. But it’s not the type of movie I would consider taking a friend to or –Heaven forbid – owning on DVD.
TL;DR: Moonlight is a decent character study that tries way too hard to be Important.
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