Moonlight (2016) (R)
This review contains SPOILERS!
"Moonlight" feels like many things at once. It is an example of the indie movie meeting great critical reception (and, no doubt, limited theater attendance); a poetic look at the anxiety of living as a gay, black man; and the story of a boy growing up in isolation.
It's no surprised that one of the first moments we see Chiron "Little" (Alex R. Hibbert), he is inside a run-down apartment, escaping the bullies outside. There is almost no light inside, but soon the window is pried open and Juan (Mahershala Ali) walks in and invites the little boy to lunch. The boy doesn't speak for hours, not even after he's taken back to Juan's house. Eventually, he tells them that his name is Chiron, but everyone calls him Little.
Chiron lives with his mother in Miami and things aren't great at home. His mother and he have a strained relationship and he starts his mother's addiction become more important than his well-being. Juan sees this too—Chiron and Juan spend much of the first third of the movie together, talking about seemingly nothing. The first shift in the movie occurs when Chiron leaves his mother's house, walks all the way to Juan's place and asks him two important questions: 1. what is a faggot? 2. Are you a drug dealer?
The answers to which lead to the abrupt fade into the next section: Chiron as a teenager. Everything from the first part influences the anxieties that are now made much more evident in the movie's second act. We see Chiron (Ashton Sanders) now much older, much taller, skinny, and very, very anxious about his sexuality. The kids tease him constantly for being gay, bullying him and pushing him around. At home, his mother's addictions are getting worse and the only solace he finds is with Juan's old girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). This is probably the best portion of the movie, not only because Sanders is such a compelling actor to watch; but also because it perfectly focuses the tensions of the movie into a stretch of very precise film making.
As the film movies on and Chiron ages again (played this time by Trevante Rhodes) we begin to see the possibility of resolutions. The last act is the movie's weakest, not only for its curious optimism but also for its quick repair of all things we have come to be anxious about for the sake of the protagonist.
In some ways, the film is straight-forward, a coming-of-age story about one boy in a particular circumstance. Yet, the way the film defines itself, and is being defined by the wealth of critical acclaim it has already received, is a much more interesting idea: a gay black drama. Certainly, this is a far cry from "Brokeback Mountain" and it's probably the closest thing we have gotten to a virtual queer masterpiece ever since Haigh's "Weekend"; but I find myself resisting the urge to call it just a "gay drama". It becomes limiting.
It is enlightening to see how the movie tackles issues of masculinity, violence, and pride; but it never defines any of its characters within the normalized white queer culture, and for that, it becomes something we haven't really seen before.
The film making itself is beautiful to look at, from the classic inspired soundtrack to the more Dolan moments of emotional release and artistry. It's powerful and keenly acted. Everyone in the film feels honest and true to their parts. "Moonlight" should see some Academy Award attention when the time rolls around.
By the film's ending, it does seem that writer and director Barry Jenkins is very clearly stating that this is a gay film and the optimism in the end is appreciated for once. It doesn't feel campy or cliche and no one is killed off or destroyed by the end of the film—it is a resistance of those tropes. The last moments seem to indicate a healing of sorts that occurs; and in this, there is some mystery.
Whether or not I understand every idea and symbol in the movie is irrelevant. What is important is that the film gives us honest portrayals of people rarely seen on the screen before.
Posted by Micah Jones