I find myself increasingly relying on social media as a means to hear about new film, television, and music. In this age of the 24-hour news cycle, information flies fast and furiously each day, especially when it comes to pop culture. Last month on Facebook I began to see chatter about Moonlight, a film I’d admittedly never heard of. The movie poster alone caught my attention, and when I saw it featured omnipresent, emerging star Mahershala Ali (House of Cards, Luke Cage), I was sold. The trailer was stunning, and many critics have hailed it the best film of the year, with it earning an impressive 98% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, as much as I wanted to love Moonlight (and I like it a great deal), I was ever so slightly disappointed in light of its overwhelming praise.
Movies are traditionally structured in three acts, and writer/director Barry Jenkins adheres to this axiom quite literally. In Moonlight he tells the story of Chiron (pronounced sha-rone), a young Black boy coming of age in a tough part of Miami. In addition to limited financial resources, Chiron’s single parent upbringing is further strained by his burgeoning sexuality. The ‘first act’ of the film depicts Chiron’s formative years. Dubbed “Little” by his peers, Chiron is quiet and withdrawn, but opens up under the benevolent eye of Juan (the aforementioned Ali), a local drug dealer. Hoping to fill the void of Chiron’s absentee father, Juan and Little form a bond built on nurturing acceptance and love. The film shines here in its beautiful depiction of this bond between man and child. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (portrayed wonderfully by Janelle Monae) are Little’s only solace.
The film skips ahead, picking up with “Little” when he is about 16, and at this stage of his life he uses his given name, Chiron. The events that transpire during this period would go on to shape his early adulthood as he timidly, awkwardly explores his sexuality. This would also prove to be a volatile period in his life as the violence and bullying around his identity intensifies. His mother is a non-factor, battling demons of her own. Naomie Harris (Spectre) masterfully portrays a woman ill equipped to tend to her child, her addiction precluding any meaningful efforts at love and stability.
In the film’s final act, Chiron has become a young man. His life experiences have ostensibly hardened him, but the outward trappings of masculinity belie a gentle spirit, hiding the same little boy who shared his vulnerabilities with Juan and Teresa. The film’s strength was in its emotional exploration of powerful themes involving masculinity, self-actualization, and the human condition, bolstered further by the performances of its young actors at three distinct stages of life.
Unfortunately, I thought the narrative faltered in its final act, a frequent criticism of mine, but a pronounced observation regarding Moonlight. The film’s ending was anti-climactic and disappointing. I understand that the same level of conflict cannot be sustained throughout a film, but the final impression of Chiron should’ve been more definitive, in my opinion. The ending didn’t negate the film’s emotional impact, but it muted its effect. After being satisfied with about 75% of the film the only question left at the end is, “Is that it?” Grade: Revised to A-