Moonlight and all the images you see in this review are owned by A24
Directed by Barry Jenkins
I don’t get to see a lot of independent films where I live, and the few chances that I do get to see them usually involve a long drive to a faraway theater with exorbitant prices. Such is the case with this film which has been getting a whole lot of buzz recently, especially with Hollywood’s recent push to diversify itself (and with Birth of Nation having more baggage than they expected). My knowledge of LGBTQ+ cinema is somewhat limited, though even then I’m not even sure the best way to define that. I’m pretty sure that saying John Waters or Gus Van Sant are “gay filmmakers” is right on the money as their work often centers around LGBTQ+ characters and their struggles, but what about directors like Lee Daniels or Rob Marshall? Sure, you can point to most of their movies and point out themes and messages that can be relatable to those in the LGBTQ+ community, but would you put The Butler or Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides along alongside Gus Van Sant’s films? Hell, what about movies that are explicitly about LGBTQ+ issues but are directed by those who aren’t in the community such as Brokeback Mountain, To Wong Foo, or even this film which was written by a gay man (Tarell Alvin McCraney) but directed by a straight one? Look, I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who can give you a better answer to that question than I can, so I’ll just stick to what I at least PRETEND to know best; namely talking about the movies while making snarky comments. Is this the film that truly lives up to the ideals that Hollywood has failed to live up to and will get all the credit it deserves, or is this a mediocre endeavor that the cynics in the Academy will glom onto just to make themselves look better? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows the life of Chiron and is presented to us in three distinct segments. We see him when he’s small and is known as Little (Alex Hibbert), when he’s a teenager and the nickname has been dropped (Ashton Sanders), and as an adult when he starts using another nickname Black (Trevante Rhodes), and in each one they show a little bit more of his struggle. What struggle is that exactly? Well it doesn’t take long to figure out that he’s gay which everyone around him seems to pick up on and, for the most part, use it against him. His mother (Naomie Harris) is dealing with her own problems with addiction so this just seems like an unbearable inconvenience for her and plenty of kids in school just bully him because he seems different. Now it’s not like the whole world is against him as a local couple, Juan and Teresa (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe), try to give him some guidance in his life, and he has a friend named Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and André Holland) who tries to keep his spirits up even though he’s got his own growing pains to work through and his own share of bad choices to make. Will Chiron ever feel accepted in a world that seems tailor made to keep him down? How will decisions that he and his family make at certain points in his life affect him later on? Most importantly, WILL YOU JUST KISS HIM ALREADY!? YOU BELONG TOGETHER!!
I get that this is the kind of movie that doesn’t get made nearly enough and that it’s speaking to a perspective that never gets explored in movies. I get that the acting from all of the leads belies a depth and subtlety that helps us believe in these characters and the internal struggles that are constantly raging inside of them. I get that the cinematography is nice and that classical music kicks the artsy-ness levels up a few notches. Despite all of that though, this movie is dull, completely unsatisfying, a chore to sit through, and I’m just not someone who likes to sit through these kind of movies as a form of penance no matter how important the message is. I want to ENJOY watching a movie, and while I can appreciate some of the really solid artistic choices throughout, the main character is simply BORING. He’s boring as a kid, he’s boring as a teenager, and he’s REALLY boring as an adult. It’s just such an isolating experience to watch this kid NOT talk about his feelings, NOT meet others in the LGBTQ+ community, and only RARELY do something of consequence. I’m sure that’s there are those who will connect deeply with what the character goes through, but to me that just means that you have to bring something to the film to get anything out of it rather than getting the audience invested through what it does on its own. At best, I can say that it succeeds in what it’s trying to do; namely show the world an experience that no one is willing to talk about. All I can do is tell you how I felt about the finished product, and to me it just made me want to watch more interesting films like Love My Life, or Carol. Those had rough moments as well, but at least they had people smiling every once in a while!
Look, I get it. He’s got feelings that he can’t fully understand and he’s in an environment that’s hard enough to express oneself in already; let alone while also being an LGBTQ+ kid. His taciturn exterior is a defense mechanism as he can’t trust anyone to not outright reject him (or even get violent with him) so he chooses a life of quiet desperation out of necessity. The problem though is that we never really see him with his guard down at any point. As an audience, we’re as left in the dark about who he is and what he really wants as much as everyone else in the movie and it just doesn’t lead to an interesting character. At best, he’s sympathetic and maybe even empathetic if you’ve ever felt nervous about sharing something you like for fear of reprisal, though in most cases it would just be teasing as opposed to outright ass kickings. I don’t know about you though, but I can’t like a character just because they’re being mistreated and I simply cannot tell you anything about Chiron other than he’s gay and unhappy. Does he like music, movies, or television? Does he like learning? Is he Pro-Bernie, or a Ron Paul style libertarian? What kind of dudes does he like? Twinks, Bears, Wolves? There’s nothing to latch onto here and it makes the movie an interminable slog whenever he’s on screen which is most of the running time.
Now to get away from the negativity for a moment here, the supporting cast is EXCELLENT and other than the stock school bullies, there’s no one who isn’t pulling their weight to keep this movie going. In particular, Mahershala Ali who plays Juan and has already proved to be an acting powerhouse from his role in Luke Cage is great in here as someone who tries to be a good mentor to young Chiron (Little) but also trying to figure out if he can even be that for him when he’s also a drug dealer. It probably makes the most sense for Chiron to be so withdrawn in this early segment considering how little direction he has in his formative years, so I won’t knock the movie too much for this in that section; especially when Mahershala Ali plays such a prominent role and makes up for Chiron’s lack of personality with his own natural charisma and talents. Unfortunately, he really only plays a role in the first part which means that the second two thirds have a huge hole that needs to be filled, and to the films credit the rest of the supporting cast is strong as well. Chiron’s mother, two of the actors who play Kevin (teen and adult) and even Teresa who’s Juan’s girlfriend and gets a pretty prominent role in part two are all way more interesting than our protagonist is at any of the three stages in his life and the three actors that portray those stages. I will say that Chiron’s mother at least manages to get some emotion out of him at each stage in his life (and from all three actors), but then that emotion tends to be terror as Naomie Harris’s performance is pretty frightening and REALLY effective whenever she goes off the deep end; naturally taking it out on Chiron in the process. Maybe if the movie wasn’t framed around Chiron throughout his whole life and instead let these supporting players have more permanent roles then I can see this working as an exploration of how important a proper support network is (and how destructive an unhealthy one is), but as it stands the movie is too fragmented and overly focused on Chiron to let him be blank slate for the audience.
As far as the framing device of this being three sections in this person’s life, I just didn’t find it to be all that compelling and could have been handled so much better. Rather than one section building off of another, it feels like a hard reset for the movie and all the interesting stuff tends to have happened before we pick the story back up; leaving us with even more scenes of Chiron not doing much of anything. It also applies to the supporting cast who still manage to do well in whatever section of the movie they’re in, but it feels like they’re arc gets severely undercut as so much character development is left for us to piece together after the time jump. It just all feels so… unsatisfying to watch someone be miserable over two decades with no real point other than to remind us all that there are people out there who are this miserable all the time. Even the ending feels needlessly dour as it just cuts off right before the audience can some sense of satisfaction for all that Chiron has had to go through. They couldn’t let the one reliving moment in the movie go on for more than three seconds!?
The only other thing of note here is that some of the cinematography works, and there are moments in here where Chiron DOES manage to be a bit more decisive and we can root for him if just for a moment of two. The best example would be the end of the second act (Chiron) but the film then immediately jumps to the third act; resetting his character once again and forcing the audience to try and find something to like in his character for the third time. There are some very nice touches in terms of lighting throughout the movie that bump the production up a bit; especially in the first act where Chiron’s mother’s room is never seen, but every time the door is opened we can see that it is awash in red light. Not only is that at least visually appealing, but it gives is a bit of insight into Chiron’s character who’s too young (and probably too sacred) to go into her room so it has a sense of foreboding to it like a child who’s afraid of what’s under the bed. Also, while I feel it’s a BIT heavy-handed and pretentious, the classical music is used effectively in parts; again pointing to an early scene in the movie where it’s playing while Chiron’s mother is mutely hurling verbal abuse at him. There are some decent technical chops here that help the movie along, but once again it can’t make up for the uninteresting main character that it’s all circling around.
You know what I’m reminded most of which will probably tell you why I didn’t like this movie? I’ve seen my fair share of French films (mostly through Netflix) that fell just as portentous and self-assured in their grandeur that it ended up sucking the life out of the movie. Shit like The Piano Teacher or Water Lilies which just stumbles around ponderously until the filmmakers got bored and just cut it off. Hell, I’ll even throw Blue is the Warmest Color into that category which seems to be a movie everyone else likes except me (the characters are not all that interesting and it looks like someone shot it on a freaking iPhone), so maybe I just don’t have the patience for something like this. I feel this movie does have a sense of ambition in that it’s about a subject matter I can’t ever recall seeing done in a movie before (can anyone else think of a gay man of color in a movie who isn’t a comic relief side character?), and the performances of everyone around Chiron give this movie enough life and energy to make each part at least watchable even if it doesn’t feel satisfying as a whole. I wouldn’t recommend paying theater prices to see this which shouldn’t be too big of a problem considering it’s a limited release anyway, but even when it gets a home release, eh… I can only recommend it if there’s something about the premise that speaks to you on a personal level. Maybe that’s all the filmmakers were aiming for and didn’t want to compromise their vision so it can appeal to a wider audience. That’s fine if that was truly the intent here, but for me I could not get invested in the character, the pacing was hurt a lot by the framing device, and I just don’t see enough depth and meaning here to justify the dour and oppressive tone which never lets up and rarely has a moment of levity. If this movie succeeding will lead to more movies like it that will take different approaches, then go ahead and support this film. For me though, the only time I’ll watch it again is if I really need to take a nap.
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