I finally saw “Moonlight,” and although it is a significant film, I am not sure that it deserves the hyper-accolades it has received. The subject alone makes it noteworthy: an African-American boy growing up in the ghetto of Miami, living with a drug-addicted mother who turns tricks to feed her habit. If this were not enough to bring compassion to the mix, the boy discovers he is gay.
We see Chiron through two stages of his youth and his emergence into adulthood. To my mind, the first part of the story is the most compelling. An eight year-old Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) – called Little – is constantly picked upon by his peers – they chase him, beat him up when they can catch him, and constantly sling threats and slurs at him. Chiron is not safe in his own home where his mother (Naomi Harris) screams at him and often ejects him from the apartment so she can entertain customers, or in school where his fellow students torture him, or on the streets where the neighborhood boys stalk him. He is befriended by his mother’s drug supplier, Juan (Mahershala Ali) – an African-American from Cuba – and his compassionate girlfriend Theresa (Janelle Monae). It is an odd alliance, and we are grateful that some adult has taken an interest in Chiron.
In the second part of the film, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is in high school and the same kids who abused him as a little kid are still taking it out on him in the halls and playgrounds. By this time Juan is dead – we don’t know how. But Theresa still keeps a room for Chiron at her place and sees that he has a little spending money. Alas, when Chiron finally tires of being beaten to a pulp by the thugs at school, he turns on his primary assailant and is carted off to juvenile hall. The injustice continues. By this point in his life, Chiron has figured out his sexual identity and has one liaison with his childhood friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome).
We next see Chiron (Trivante Rhodes) – now called Black – as a pumped up twenty-something who has worked his way up in the drug trade and living in Atlanta, where his mother has now kicked her habit and is keeping straight by working in a drug rehab facility.
The theme of this film is an old one – it is about loneliness and isolation – and hopelessness in a world where there is little cause for rejoicing and not a lot to look forward to. It’s about a lifestyle few of us can recognize – and those who recognize it, wish to forget. Is there redemption? Kevin (Andre Holland) comes back into Chiron’s life and seems to be the only real human contact Chiron has made. Finally, there is someone in the world who can identify with his aloneness and can comfort him. Small grace for a life of isolation, torture and despair.
The acting is excellent all around. The script pretty much tells the story without any dishonesty. This is not a pretty story where things work out in the end. Frankly, we don’t know where the end is in this script.
The discomfort in the film is not just the subject matter but the long, awful pauses in dialog and action. In this film, the most poignant dialogue is uttered by the drug dealer and his girlfriend. They have the only clean and tidy apartment and are the only people we see eating regular meals together. They are the family. They are the people who are our role models. How can this be?
The single aspect of the film that bothered me most was the photography and the breaks between the three segments of the movie. The screen simply goes black; then a new segment begins. This is followed by a notice that we are moving into another part of Chiron’s life: Chiron i; Chiron ii; etc. We can get all of that without the notice, and we recognize that Chiron has gotten older. We don’t need a dark screen to comprehend it, or a marquee to hit us over the head.
This is an interesting movie and worth seeing, especially now that it is on DVD and streaming. But, except for the acting and the theme, to me it is a bit disappointing. I wish they had a better cameraman, a better script, and a slicker way of segueing into the three distinct parts. If they had, it could have really been a “Best Motion Picture” for which it was nominated.