Quick Hit: A hauntingly beautiful tale of a young, gay black man in Miami as he grows into a man.
This critical darling has been on my radar since I started hearing about how good it was when it was on the festival circuit. The thing was I deliberately excluded myself from knowing anything about it – all the way up to the point I actually watched the movie (quite an achievement these days). So when the opening shot of the camera sliding around the car to the drug dealing corner occurred, I thought I would be in for a pretty standard film about the drug scene in Miami.
Man was I WRONG (and I really don’t like to be).
Moonlight follows Chiron from a young boy of 10 to a 30 something male. It’s not quite as effective as say, Boyhood, because the actors are different (but who can really hold up to Boyhood when it comes to having the same actors over 19 years???), but it’s remarkably effective in the way it makes you feel. You trace Chiron throughout the movie as a young boy living in neighborhood where he is bullied and hiding in crack holes just to get away. There he is befriended by a young man who is the lead drug dealer in the area, Juan.
Juan is played by Mahershala Ali absolutely phenomenally. There is a lot that could go wrong with that role. He could fall into the classic drug dealer category, or he could seem to be grooming young Chiron to be the next dealer. Instead what he gives us is a warm fatherly glow with advice to boot. That’s a tough position, and nearly all the best scenes of the film are about Juan – Juan’s monologue on the beach, Juan’s emotional crash when answering Chiron’s questions… they’re just fantastic. That’s not to take away from the films three “leads” who portray Chiron at different points in life, or some other supporting characters, such as Naomie Harris as Chiron’s mother or Janelle Monáe as the girlfriend of Juan. It’s just that Mahershala Ali serves to be the heart of the film at times that there seems to be no heart. A well-deserved supporting actor nod here.
The middle portion of the film was very different from the first. It gives us everyone six years older, and Juan is gone. Along with that, Chiron's mother is struggling with where to get her next fix. Chiron himself is struggling with the bullying that has continued into the disaster that is high school. There are some extremely powerful scenes here, in particular one on the beach and one in a bathroom (that is later mirrored). This duality of the shot in the mirror is perfect because it reflects Chiron entirely. Who is he and what will he become?
The film also has one of the most unique soundtracks in recent memory. Frequently presenting the sounds of hip-hop issuing from car windows, the film also presents scenes of boys wrestling (in itself a strong metaphor) to Mozart. And towards the end of the movie, a musical choice could not have been better chosen to issue from a jukebox. The lighting and filming also does heavy lifting emotionally, allowing the scene to be set instantly – we don’t have to guess the mood of scenes, lighting tells us instantly.
Overall, Moonlight’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. The time gaps, which allow us to better track Chiron overtime as he grows into a man who is still hiding himself inside, are a massive disservice to other characters in the film. Most, outside of Kevin, are thrown aside with only minimal contact. That’s unfortunate because at times you can see their story on the fringes, and it makes you want to get back to it. That’s because Chiron, as good as the story is, is tough to stay with consistently due to his habit of falling into silence when the conversation gets tough.
Overall, I think Moonlight is a great film for a lot of reasons, but it could have been even better. Nominated for 8 Academy Awards, including Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Supporting Actor, Moonlight does a lot right and I recommend it overall.
For more on this film, check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"