It is a structural exercise where the structure both helps and hampers, and it is also a film that mildly undermines its own humanity by pursuing its themes at the expense of its characters—but the social and emotional truths it gets at will stick with you, at least as much as its minor missteps.
Written and directed by Barry Jenkins (based on the play by Tarell Alvin McCraney)
With Alex Hibbery (Little), Ashton Sanders (Chiron), Trevante Rhodes (Black), Jaden Piner (Kevin, age 6), Jharrel Jerome (Kevin, age 16) Andre Holland (Kevin, grown-up), Mahershala Ali (Juan), Janelle Monae (Teresa), and Naomie Harris (Paula)
Spoiler alert: moderate
In Miami, around the turn of the century, we find a young boy. Derisively called "Little" by his bullying peers, he makes his first connections to the world, only to soon have them broken; we leap forward ten years, and see that Little has grown into a teenager, now going by his Christian name of Chiron, and still facing a poisonous social circle, though he turns out to have a kind of a solution for his bullying woes; and so we leap forward once again, another ten years. Chiron has become a young man, now—but not too young. Lately he's taken on the nickname he'd disliked so much as a teen, "Black," as his preferred mode of address, and we discover that he's done his level best to live up to its stereotypes, in what could be argued to be an overly-literary, social-issues-drama sort of way. Ah, of course: perhaps I ought to have already mentioned that Chiron is black. He's also gay. These facts are pretty important.
To perhaps belabor the obvious, Moonlight is a comparatively miserable story, though it surely comes by its miserablism honestly: it's about growing up black, gay, and impoverished in a world where any of those things, but especially all three of those things at once, present a virtually-insuperable obstacle to attaining even the most meager kind of individuality or happiness. That's the good news, and the other good news is this: Moonlight is also, on occasion, a beautiful motion picture, one that is ready, with a measured optimism, to celebrate overcoming what those things tend to mean in America, even when so much damage has already been done. And so it comes by its tiny triumphs honestly, too—even when their very tininess is, in its way, the single most depressing thing about it. Just take the fate of the protagonist's erstwhile friend, Kevin, as a prime example of what I mean: after suffering through his own volatile adolescence, he winds up a cook at a diner with a child support obligation. And this is the foundation upon which he has built what he has decided to name contentment. Yet you tend to believe him, when he says that these deflated aspirations are, in the end, enough for a man to reconcile himself to existing. This is the part where I said to myself, "Jesus Christ—on the one hand, that's pretty admirable. On the other, it is wrist-slicingly sad."
Moonlight plays out within a rigid formal structure, presented as three sharply-discontinuous acts, each one announcing itself (extremely loudly, with chapter headings and everything—e.g., "iii. Black") as the three most important episodes in the life of this young man named Chiron. (His relationship to the mythological centaur, incidentally, appears to be entirely negligible.) Each act naturally winds up being its own little film, complete with its own beginning, middle, and end—as well as its own star. And the trio who play Chiron manage a surprising—and very gratifying—continuity of performance, despite looking absolutely nothing alike beyond their skin tone, and perhaps (as asserted by Moonlight's director, Barry Jenkins) a little similarity around the eyes.
I was glib with my plot synopsis above, but we can be a little more detailed without spoiling anything. The first vignette tracks a few weeks (months?) during Chiron's unpleasant childhood, and focuses upon his relationship with the first and only father-shaped figure he'd ever get, the friendly local drug dealer Juan; at home, however, Chiron suffers under the drug-addicted pseudo-parenting of his mother Paula. (In between, he makes the acquaintance of Kevin, who befriends poor "Little," yet who doesn't seem to have half the problems fitting in, perhaps because Kevin knows how to project something other than an air of vulnerability.)
The second vignette is dedicated to examining a smaller fraction of Chiron's even more unpleasant adolescence. (And an interesting thing about Moonlight is how the chapters take on smaller and smaller amounts of time—suggestive, perhaps, of how memory becomes more concrete and reliable as we grow up. And so "i. Little" is almost dreamlike in its way, and "ii. Chiron" has its odd editing filips, whereas "iii. Black" is almost as an objective document of a man's experience as a film could possibly be, taking place in something close to real time. It's mostly just Black's boring drive back down to Miami that winds up surrendered to the editor and storytelling efficiency.)
Anyway, once we catch up with Chiron, aged 16, we find that Juan can no longer help him, even if Chiron still wanted his help. Furthermore, now that he's surpassed puberty, Chiron's sexuality becomes completely inescapable, both for good and (ultimately) for ill. Finally, we have that the third vignette, which picks back up with Chiron as an adult. And here we discover he has learned precious little from Juan's contradictions, or from his own suffering, except how to hide his true self behind that aforementioned performance of masculine toughness, which appears to exist almost exclusively to be deconstructed.
This last phase, of course, is the point of the whole movie; and it's the easiest part to look the tiniest bit askance at. It's easier still, considering that the similar childhood circumstances of both the filmmaker, and of the playwright who wrote the poetically-titled source material, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, led to them becoming the pair of black men who authored the indie hit Moonlight—as opposed, that is, to a pair of men who spend half their days slinging dope, and the other half doing push-ups. It's something you try not to notice in movies, but sometimes you really can't help it: characters who, by writer fiat, must lack all insight into their own issues, in order for their issues to be given a properly inner-conflict-laden narrative form. (But then again, there but for the grace of God go we all. And we could all use a few more push-ups ourselves, too, I'd wager.)
But I do have to admit to my own limited ability to digest the lesson: that's why I can't figure out whether Moonlight is a pretty great little movie—or merely a well-intentioned, very good one. Essentially, I can't decide why I don't entirely buy Black. Is it because he actually is mostly a constructed vehicle for espousing themes—or is it that I'm a honky who was once middle-class, and still manages to persist in a liberal milieu where I could fuck guys, if I felt like it? Don't answer that.
It probably helps Moonlight that its third chapter is supposed to be disappointing—and that is the right word for the feeling one gets, when one sees Trevante Rhodes' incredible buffness and self-confident carriage emerge, only to discover that both the actor and Jenkins himself are using these things as a blind—much in the same way that the end of the second act, a shock of awesomely righteous violence that compelled me to inappropriately yell "Woot!" at a Prestige Drama in the theater, was itself only ever the set-up for a tragic reversal of Chiron's progress. Because once we get to this third chapter, we find he's completely buried his sexuality, along with anything else that might mark him as weak. And the tragedy, obviously, is that refusing to be himself certainly isn't making him stronger, let alone happier; but when he gets a call from the boy who stabbed him in the back ten years prior, he accepts an invitation that I think he realizes could make him, or break him—emotionally speaking.
Truthfully, I lean toward suspecting most of what I find troublesome with Moonlight is 80-90% my problem, and not the film's—though the sheer archness of it still sticks slightly in the craw. ("You're the only man who ever touched me," says Black. To which one has to respond, "Good Lord, that was ten years ago. Have you started your string of sex murders yet?")
In the end, it does not hurt the parts of the film that work so incredibly well—the sadness-tinged relationships between people who don't want to harm each other, but whose actions wind up driving the mundane gut-punching betrayals that close out each of those first two acts anyway.
That leaves us with the film itself, beyond the story. It is, in some respects, derivative; but since it's deriving from a master, there's no shame in putting so much Malick into your film, if you do it well. Barry Jenkins does, indeed, do it well. It's surely right in your face about it: it's in the editing and in the music choices (highly committed to classical music for a movie about Miami in the early 2000s). It's in the scope of the project, and in the use of its characters as symbols. It can often be seen in the Lubezki Lite of the camerawork, too. (It's good Lubezki Lite, before you ask; but needless to say Moonlight's actual cinematographer, James Laxton, is not Emmanuel Lubezki.) And, clearly, Malick was't the first dude to use a beach as a heavy liminal metaphor—just like I'm sure Jenkins won't be the last—but it's right there, if you feel compelled to compare their respective approach. (Meanwhile, the basic conceit of the thing—following a child as he becomes a man—is bound to recall, at points, Tree of Life, though it recalls Linklater's Boyhood even more directly. On this count, however, Moonlight, being neither boring nor pointless, was always going to get the better of that unfortunate comparison.)
There is hardly any Malick at all, however, in Jenkins' performances, which are vastly richer than the hollow archetypes Malick tends to use as puppets in his various theological examinations; and that's something Moonlight benefits from immensely. They are nuanced, humane performances, designed to break apart archetypes like "drug dealer" and remind you that vastly complex inner lives reside behind any given pair of eyes. (Though not necessarily every pair of eyes: Moonlight is definitely a movie about men, and despite the energy and commitment of their performances, Naomie Harris, as Chiron's mom, and Janelle Monae, playing Juan's girlfriend, simply aren't allowed to break out of their stock roles, of the unrepentant crack addict and the kind surrogate mother, respectively—certainly not the way that Andre Holland and Mahershala Ali get to, as grown-up Kevin and Juan. And forget Trevante Rhodes, who is just out-and-out great, rounding Black, Jenkins' argumentative construct, into something that's practically indistinguishable from a real live human being, with just the way he sits in a diner booth, and listens, and looks.)
It is not without its other problems, however, and there is one weakness to Moonlight that I don't think is my problem—and, to be specific, I am not one bit in love with the way Moonlight's structural conceit collides with Moonlight's narrative in deeply, deeply awkward ways. When it practically demands you to treat it as a collection of Chiron's memories, it's simply unappealing how happy it also is, to step entirely outside of Chiron's perspective, basically whenever it damn well feels like it. It starts in the very first shot of the film, which attends to Juan, and to the daily troubles of being a middle manager for the drug trade. But no doubt the worst of it comes when Jenkins bluntly inserts an expositional scene into the second act, so that when a certain character winds up doing something horrible to his friend, the audience is given a little understanding as to his motivations, though Chiron could hardly have even found out about it later. (Oh, sure: Tree of Life does something similar. But then, Tree of Life also has a twenty minute interval where it takes on the point-of-view of God.)
If it it weren't for what the film's structure implies, this wouldn't matter much. And, in fairness, when those implications are so important to what the film ultimately winds up meaning, it's also easy enough to sympathize with Jenkins' predicament. The director obviously needed the structure; and he needed to relate information and develop characters outside of Chiron's presence, too. But, then, the issue isn't that he had a technical writing problem. It's that his solutions to it are not especially elegant. And this has got to count as the biggest, most overt flaw in his whole construction.
Even so: Moonlight's strengths wind up far more numerous than its weaknesses. If, for whatever reason, you needed a coming-of-age melodrama that treats with race and sexuality deftly, and with a deep concern for a certain kind of literary realism—but, importantly, without recourse to so much unpleasant naturalism, that you wind up wondering why the hell anybody wanted to make the thing in the first place—well, Moonlight is pretty much exactly what you were asking for. I liked it a whole lot, even if I do stop short of outright loving it, as I am apparently supposed to.