Review: ‘Moonlight’ is courageous, compassionate, and one of the year’s best films
Chiron is withdrawn and quiet. Nicknamed “Little,” he flees from confrontation, terrified of being chased and beaten by his peers. Who can blame him? Other children, and his own drug-addled mother (Naomie Harris) abuse him. Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local hustler, offers protection and understanding. He predicts Little will make his own path in life. Later, Little (Alex Hibbert) sits at the dinner table and asks, “What’s a faggot?” He only seeks to understand how he has been labeled.
Moonlight follows Chiron through three periods in his young life, and rejects all labels. Instead, writer-director Barry Jenkins seeks only to understand Chiron’s struggle to find himself and to come to terms with his own identity as a gay black man. There is no judgment; only openness to difference. It is a remarkable breath of fresh air and emotionally devastating. Aided by magnificent performances, it overcomes occasional clumsiness with great grace in its intentions, and offers a look at what it means to be masculine in the modern world.
Masculinity is at the heart of this story, hanging over Chiron’s world and drawing a curtain over what he truly feels. The film’s three chapters, separated by several years and each labeled “Little,” “Chiron” and “Black” after Chiron’s subsequent identifiers, depict his native Miami (and later Atlanta) as unforgiving, intolerant suburban metropolises. Chiron finds solace from his tormentors in his only friend, Kevin (played in adulthood by Andre Holland). Their relationship holds great meaning, and their conversations dance around unspoken desires and memories. When Chiron, called “Black” in adulthood (Trevante Rhodes) finally lays himself bare in the film’s last moments, Moonlight’s power is important and undeniable.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the film’s technical aspects, which suffer from a visual and aural palette seemingly designed only to maximize the film’s loftiness. Cinematographer James Laxton alternates between roaming, handheld shots and static, artfully framed portraits and landscapes. It’s a mix that demonstrates great skill but seems at odds with the narrative’s personal nature.
Jenkins regularly dabbles in the surreal, with dream sequences that display plenty of visual splendor but offer little in terms of thematic heft. The musical score further hampers the film, with swelling, self-serious violins intended to lift the film to artful but pretentious heights. These elements create distance between the audience and Moonlight’s themes, rather than fostering a connection between them.
The narrative’s execution is also problematic, if laudable in its intentions. By separating Chiron’s upbringing into a series of defining moments, Jenkins draws a significant amount of emotion and meaning from the story. But this comes with the sacrifice of authenticity; the plot appears distinctly design to maximize feeling, rather than completely genuine. As uncommon as these themes and subjects are in cinema, the film’s structure is anything but unique, and it shows.
But despite it’s flaws, Moonlight’s heart is undoubtedly in the right place. It tackles subjects too often ignored in film, with a careful, well-meaning hand. At its best, it acts as a connection to those who are misunderstood, and gives voice to the hardships and lives of those who feel suffocated by the world’s gaze. Rarely has there been an attempt to critique masculinity and queerness so openly, and with such fearlessness.
Which is why the film’s heavy-handed cinematic tendencies seem so ill-advised. Too often, Jenkins erects barriers between Chiron and the audience. But in Moonlight’s best moments, those barriers seem to melt away, and we’re left with pure connection and truth. It reminds us why we go to the movies.
Watch a trailer for ‘Moonlight’ here:
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