Back in 2015, the biggest controversy surrounding the Oscars was that all twenty acting nominees were white with no black performers being nominated for two years in a row. To buck this trend the academy widened its membership and these measures have already paid dividends with a much more diverse range of actors and films nominated for the top prizes. One of these diverse films is Moonlight, which was also the most critically lauded movie of 2016, which features an almost entirely black cast and focuses on specific issue that I haven’t seen brought up in film before.
Moonlight focuses on the character of Chairon; initially a bullied youngster who has very little to say for himself and who is raised by his unpredictable drug addicted mother Paula. Barry Jenkins’ film follows Chairon’s life over three very distinct chapters in which he is played by three different actors all of whom adopt a different one of the protagonist’s identity. The first third of the film looks at Chairon’s childhood and particularly the relationship he had with Che; a notorious drug dealer in the neighbourhood and somebody who tries to guide the youngster the best way he can. The middle period sees Chairon using his own name as he tries to navigate his way through the landscape of high school and comes to terms with his burgeoning homosexual feelings towards his classmate Kevin. However, an incident in this middle period of his life sees him wind up in juvenile hall and when we meet him as a young adult he has moved to Atlanta and essentially is living the same life as Che did at the beginning of the film. The film then sees him travel back to Atlanta to spend some time with his mother and more importantly to reunite with Kevin after more than a decade.
Just like with La-La Land, Moonlight came with some very high expectations to live up to especially since it had just one the Golden Globe for best dramatic film just before I watched it. I knew very little about Moonlight going in other than the concept of the three actors playing the same character and the fact that it dealt with a youngster growing up with being black and gay. However, Chairon’s homosexuality was very subtly portrayed by both Jenkins’ script and by the trio of actors portraying the central character. Aside from one very explicit scene on the beach with Kevin in the middle portion of the film, everything else about Chairon’s sexuality is left up in the air. In fact, I feel that a lot of the themes and relationships in the film are left hanging primarily due to the large gaps in time between the three parts of the film. Due to the structure, I don’t feel the film hung together as well as the majority of others do and I don’t particularly subscribe to the notion that I have to read between the lines to get a good measure of the character. Additionally, nothing about the character of Chairon began to stick for that long from his relationship with Che in the start of the film to his on/off pairing with Kevin everything in Jenkins’ script has an almost stop/start nature to it.
But although the film didn’t hang together as well as it possibly could have done, Moonlight is one of those films that when it’s good it’s excellent. There are individual set pieces within the film that are perfectly plotted and presented with each section of the film having a standout moment. Of all three sections I think the first part featuring the ‘Little’ Chairon was the best and this was due to Mahershala Ali’s superb portrayal of Chairon’s only positive male influence Che. In fact, I thought that Moonlight would be revisiting Che and Chairon’s relationship throughout the course of the film so I was surprised when the former was killed off screen during the first and second sections of the film. The abiding memory of that second section is Chairon’s aforementioned beach liaison with Kevin whilst the couple reuniting in the diner in which the latter is now a chef definitely provides the highlight of Moonlight’s closing chapter. With actors departing and reappearing throughout the film the only performer to appear prominently in all three sections of the film is Naomie Harris as Chairon’s drug-addicted mother Paula. Although I felt that Harris did as well as she could I found all of her scenes quite cliched especially her tearful reunion with her son in which he finally forgives her for his awful childhood.
Just like La-La Land, Moonlight is an incredibly well-made film and James Laxton’s cinematography deserves particular praise for making mundane moments seem utterly poetic. Furthermore, I felt that Nicholas Britell’s score fit in well with the more contemporary tunes used on the soundtrack and it perfectly enhanced some of the more tender scenes. Overall everything in Moonlight was good from the performances to the scripting but in my opinion the pacing was a little off in so far as every time I started to get invested in a pivotal point of Chairon’s life, the story would skip ten years leaving me back at square one. While there was a lot to appreciate about the film, Moonlight never truly won me over and therefore I left a little underwhelmed by what many had claimed to be the best film of 2016.