Starring Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner.
Directed by Barry Jenkins.
Argh, I’m really torn with this film. The huge success it had at both the box office and during awards season I think should encourage me to delve a little deeper into this, and force myself to ‘read between the lines’ if I am going to feel the way everyone else appears to feel having watched this film. Or maybe, I need to watch it again. Dare I say I found it a little underwhelming?
Moonlight is about a boy called Chiron growing up gay and black in present-day Miami. I didn’t realise it was actually adapted from an unproduced play by Tarell Alvin McCraney called In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, in which the three characters on stage – a boy, a teenager and a young man, each wrestling with questions of sexual identity over the course of a day – are slowly revealed to be the same person. Jenkins has subtlety tidied up the structure, so the three slim periods of Chiron’s life are presented in chronological order, rather than concurrently. Thank god! I fear a film becomes too pretentious and showy when you mess with the structure too much. Jenkins has made just the right amount of changes so we don’t lose the vital themes and values of this narrative – that one soul can move between three bodies, and it’s possible to look back on who we used to be and see a different person looking back.
Three bodies means three actors – or rather six, because Chiron’s life is shaped in no small part by his classmate Kevin, who plays a recurring and thrillingly hard-to-second-guess role in every part. I think this was the intention, but I found myself questioning Kevin’s own sexuality, is he a bully, is he trying to set up Chiron? Why is Jenkins encouraging me to form a relationship with this character? The casting was excellent for all three segments of Chiron’s story. For me, if you can’t get the appearances and chemistry right between actors, it’s hard to find it a convincing scenario – something Moonlight definitely succeeded in.
For the past few years I’ve questioned the Academy’s choice in their winners – mainly just through ignorance on their criteria these days. I don’t think I was disappointed with Moonlight; I just didn’t come away feeling incredibly moved and emotional. I was waiting for it to ‘get going’. However, if the Hollywood Foreign Press base their decision on the acting, well then yeah, I totally get it. Ah, the acting was exceptional.
The narrative is both initiated and held together by a wonderfully charismatic performance from an actor who appears only in the first act – Mahershala Ali. Ali is playing Juan, the Miami drug-baron with a kindly, fatherly side who first meets Chiron when he is protecting him from other kids. Juan lets Chiron stay at his house occasionally and looks out for him. Before long, the two of them have formed a strong bond, with Juan’s partner Teresa (played by Janelle Monáe) forming a surrogate mother relationship with little Chiron. This unit remains a constant throughout the film, despite it being a very questionable situation. Juan through all of his fatherly instincts is in my mind the root of Chiron’s instability – he is fuelling Chiron’s mother’s drug addiction. I felt relieved Chiron had this support network and fatherly figure, but by the final segment of the film, it was clear Chiron’s own conflicted destiny follows the example laid down long ago by Juan. Without going on forever, Naomie Harris is amazing in this film. Somehow, she manages to convince you to feel sorry for her, despite the anger you feel towards her for neglecting her responsibilities as a parent. Beyond the make up, you actually see the pain of addiction in her eyes – how did she do that? The desperation and anguish is painfully obvious in her portrayal.
There were certainly some poignant and sensitive moments that hit me hard, but I wanted a few more! For example, the main theme of Chiron’s clear inner conflict with his sexuality is really tough. There was a scene between Juan and little Chiron that really struck a cord with me. Little Chiron has heard the word faggot, and is questioning its definition. Juan, who through stereotype you presume will be disgusted, enlightens Chiron in such a sweet way. He explains the meaning, and when Chiron questions if he himself is a faggot, Juan shatters all his fears and worries in one sentence – “you can be gay but that doesn’t make you a faggot. Don’t let those kids call you a faggot”. To me, it just shows how important it is to nurture the questions kids ask – empower them to not be afraid and encourage them to confront these difficult topics. Make being gay normal for crying out loud!
I’ve found lots of positive things to say – but having read other reviews I think my issue might be the pace? I’m not sure, it just felt slow. I don’t know what else I needed; maybe a few shock moments or something. Chiron’s inner confusion did make me desperately sad, I felt myself just wanting to hug him the entire time. His relationship with Kevin was annoying though. Was I suppose to just ‘know’ what they were both thinking/wanting? What did their relationship mean? Why did Kevin phone after however many years of separation? Were they in love? Hmm, I just needed it to go somewhere. I’m all for finding the hidden meaning, but sometimes I just want something to be made a little more obvious. It’s exhausting having to guess all the time!
I’ve seen La La Land and I wouldn’t have been disappointed if Warren Beatty hadn’t been wrong after all. But, on reflection maybe the HFP felt choosing Moonlight would bring to light the key issues that desperately need some attention in America and amongst the black community. It’s a sad tale, and perhaps all too real for some young black Americans today. For that reason, I would say it’s important you watch it if you haven’t already.
Four stars from me – it doesn’t feel right giving an Academy success only three!