I never know what to think about movies that everyone praises. Sometimes you can’t help but have high expectations, and in such cases, it’s very difficult for anything to live up to that. I try my best to remain objective, but it doesn’t always work. For movies about radically different experiences than my own, I wonder sometimes if there are things that I’m just missing, or at least I do when many people seem to connect to a movie when I don’t. For this movie in particular, I’m still conflicted.
Moonlight comes from writer/director Barry Jenkins, based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney. But I assume you don’t need that, because the movie takes care to be very specific in terms of visually being a movie versus a stage play. In Moonlight, we follow Chiron, a young black man living in Miami, through three periods of his life. The movie doesn’t pretend to be accurate with the time periods, giving everything a vaguely modern sensibility and keeping the only noteworthiness about it being the change in actors.
As a child, Chiron (first played by Alex Hibbert) has difficulty with his crackhead mother Paula (Naomie Harris), and is often tormented by bullies. But he manages to form bonds with his best friend Kevin (Jaden Piner), and local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Juan and Teresa supplant his real mother to become parental figures instead, but this leads to problems when Paula finds out about it.
The movie tells a few more pieces of child Chiron’s life, and then moves on to the next part, teenage Chiron. Here, he is played by Ashton Sanders, and his best friend now played by Jharrel Jerome. Life becomes further problematic for Chiron, with pressures from bullies, an even more damaged mother, and confusing questions about his own sexuality. The second segment or chapter ends as the movie moves into the final act. I am being intentionally vague so as to avoid spoilers.
In the final part, Chiron is an adult, now played by Trevante Rhodes, and his old friend Kevin by the talented character actor André Holland. Things happen, like drama and connection, and the old stories twist around to reverberate to an ending that was mostly pretty satisfying.
I am sure many people will find the movie emotionally resonant or affecting, and will find the story of Chiron to be bittersweet or triumphant or bleak or anything significant. For me, the movie was sort of like a very well painted drawing of something I don’t know; I can see the talent behind it, but I don’t really connect with it. So too with Moonlight, where I can see that the movie is well made, from direction to acting, but it didn’t really hit me.
It had standout pieces, specifically the acting throughout the movie. Mahershala Ali has a brief but important role, showing off depth in a sort of problematic character. The various actors playing Chiron are good, although as might be expected, the adults are the best. I also found the soundtrack, a play on classical themes, to work well and the cinematography to be lovely. But the movie sort of went through a peak and valley for me, with the middle segment by far the most interesting, and the rest of the movie kinda slow.
I think this is a movie that will appeal to a lot of people, and I hope they find the emotional beats I missed. It may not be a personal favorite, but I see the quality and don’t begrudge others their opinions.
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