When a film wins Best Picture at the Oscars (eventually), gets critical acclaim from all-comers and is described by Empire as ‘a genre-defining film’, it’s not unreasonable to expect something earth-shattering. Moonlight is definitely a good film, but I left feeling frustrated. This was the film that beat Manchester by the Sea and La La Land to the biggest prize in cinema, yet at no point did I feel anything close the adoration I felt for those two films. I certainly felt a strong sense of respect towards Moonlight; I admired what it was trying to do and felt that there were a lot of good things about it, but also felt that many of them were underdeveloped. It’s a good film which teeters on the edge of being a great one, but falls just short.
Moonlight tells the story of Chiron, an introverted African-American child growing up in Liberty City. The narrative covers three periods of Chiron’s life, from childhood through teenage years to adult life, each part named after a name Chiron went by at that point of his life. In ‘Little’, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is found hiding from bullies by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who gives him a place to stay for the night and becomes his much-needed father figure. Ali won Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars for his performance here, but even for a ‘supporting actor’ his part here is far too short. I assumed early on that he would be Chiron’s mentor throughout – a constant presence in an ever-changing story. But no, he just gives a great performance for half an hour and then we never hear from him again. Admittedly, Juan’s relationship with Chiron is complicated – he tries to raise him in the ways that his drug-addict mother Paula cannot, but he himself is the one selling the drugs to Paula, and his relationship with Chiron deteriorates once the truth emerges. Chiron later shows himself to be capable of forgiveness though, so it’s a shame he never reconciles with Juan.
In ‘Chiron’, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is now a teenager. Paula has resorted to stealing money from her son to fund her crack addiction, and her manic desperation is quite frightening. Chiron’s homosexuality, which was only a passing theme in part one, is now fully-fledged, and he has a sexual encounter with childhood friend Kevin on a beach. However, Kevin is peer-pressured into beating up Chiron at school, which he does reluctantly. This chapter is easily the most interesting and satisfying of the three – we see Chiron becoming his own man but still struggling to fit in with his peers. Ashton Sanders handles the transition between Chiron’s timid childhood and his more confident adult self expertly, and Naomie Harris’ portrayal of Paula’s slide into addiction is startling. If the whole film was as good as this part, I wouldn’t feel so conflicted about it.
In ‘Black’, Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has become unrecognisable – a muscle-bound, golden-toothed drug dealer who has taken on the nickname Black, given to him by Kevin during High School. Paula is now clean and living at a rehab clinic, and pleads with Chiron not to repeat her mistakes – but he’s already in too deep. Chiron also reunites with Kevin (Andre Holland), and is surprised to discover that he is now a chef in Miami, and has a son. Kevin’s life has moved on, while Chiron’s has remained static. It’s a nice contrast, and helps Chiron to realise that he has never really managed to forge his own way in life. Juan’s words to him as a child come back to haunt him: “At some point, you gotta decide who you’re gonna be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you”. But Chiron has allowed himself to be defined by his youth. The shoots of growth we saw in part two have been stunted. He reclaimed the name ‘Chiron’ in chapter two as he started to mould his identity, but now goes by ‘Black’, and has never really moved on from Kevin. First loves die hard.
Clearly there are a lot of things to like about Moonlight. Chiron’s transition from one stage of his life to the next is handled seamlessly by the three actors, and his emotional fragility is well-portrayed by Sanders and Rhodes in particular. Ali and Harris turn in top-notch performances too. And the film’s treatment of drug issues is on-point. Juan struggles with the realisation that he is providing the drugs that he chides Paula for abusing, and his relationship with Chiron falls apart because of it. Yet Chiron himself eventually falls into the same cycle, dealing drugs despite knowing first-hand how damaging they can be. These are impossible choices, particularly for people who don’t have the benefit of choice.
I think I was ultimately disappointed because I did not feel that Moonlight offered the unique perspective that it promised. The story of an African-American growing up gay in one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the United States should have been an utterly original one. But all-too-often it boils down to general issues of struggling with one’s own identity, and that is well-trodden ground. The confusion, self-doubt and bullying that Chiron suffers from because of his homosexuality are well-portrayed, but his struggles did not feel unique to him, his race or his origins. For a black, gay child living below the poverty line in America, this film might be the Holy Grail, I don’t know. As a white, heterosexual man living in suburban England, perhaps my opinion should be taken with a pinch of a salt. I can only give my own perspective.
Moonlight is absolutely worth a watch. What it does, it does really well – there’s just not enough of it. It ultimately spreads itself too thin. The script is based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unpublished play, and as a play I think it would work better, with more room for manoeuvre to explore the various issues. But as a film, it is still an interesting character study, and its Oscar win – the first for an all-black cast, and the first for an LGBT film – could not be more timely. I just wish I liked it more than I do.
Moonlight is showing at the Dukes until Thursday week 20.