Running time: 1 hour 51 minutes
Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Andre Holland, Jharrel Jerome, Jaden Piner, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, Mahershala Ali
Spoiler alert in effect.
I’m gonna say it from the start. I didn’t really enjoy watching Moonlight. I’m not trying to diminish the message it sends and the powerful statement it presents in the current climate, in regards to the African-American and LGBTQ communities. But maybe it’s just not my type of drama. I found it difficult to watch and it seemed to progress slowly and without much aim. And maybe that’s the point, but I personally zoned out at a few points. I had gone into watching it with high expectations. After all, it had all the buzz from the awards season and I’ve personally heard from my friends that it was a really good film. With such a high bar, perhaps it’s not surprising that it disappointed me.
It’s a film that is broken into 3 distinct parts, each one documenting the defining moment in Chiron’s life, from his preteen years to a young adult. A different actor plays Chiron in each stage of his life, and I thought this was brilliantly cast and acted. I’ll touch on this point later. Moonlight is essentially a coming of age story which follows a young black boy growing up in harsh socio-economic conditions. It documents his exposure to drug abuse, being brought up by an alcoholic and drug-dependent mother, racial issues, bullying, and coming to terms with his sexuality.
I like the concept of breaking it into 3 parts. It allows the audience to see the progression and story arc of Chiron and those around him. While I understand they need to build up the character development slowly to ensure each character is layered and complex, I felt the pace was very slow, with little plot to drive it along. Some people will undoubtedly enjoy this type of movie, but I didn’t quite feel connected to the characters and their circumstances to be able to be invested in the story arc.
Part i is entitled ‘Little’ (Chiron’s nickname was Little) and follows Chiron when he was just a child. Out of all 3 parts, this is my favourite and I think this has to do with Mahershala Ali’s character Juan. He’s a drug dealer who has a soft spot for the young Chiron, and offers him a home to stay in while Chiron’s mother is high or has men over. More importantly, he acts as a father figure to Chiron, giving him friendship and advice that will stay with Chiron for his life. Both Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae) provide a positive protective force over his life, and continue to be his ‘guardian angels’ into his adolescence. This is also the part of Chiron’s life where he is being bullied for ‘the way he walks’, being perceived by the other children as gay. You can see Chiron grappling with his sexuality even at this young age, when he asks Juan and Teresa what ‘faggot’ means. Not only does his mother show lack of love and compassion to him, he often has no access to food, money or a house, but he also has to deal with the confusion of being gay. It’s a tough life for him and that’s clearly exhibited in this first part.
Part ii is entitled ‘Chiron’ and this documents his turbulent teenage years where all the drama and action take place. His relationship with his mother is pretty much non-existent, as she works as a prostitute to fund her drug addiction and abuses him to get more money. This is where his relationship with Teresa deepens, as she continues to be his mother figure, despite Juan’s death. The most important part of this section however is his friendship with Kevin, culminating in that scene down at the beach. Unfortunately, Kevin succumbs to peer pressure and bashes Chiron on the instruction of the school bully, ultimately leading Chiron to retaliate and wind up in jail.
Part iii is entitled ‘Black’ (which again is Chiron’s nickname at this time). This part is all about love and reconciliation. Chiron makes amends with his mother, and is perhaps one of my favourite scenes from film, because of how real the pain and love is, and the forgiveness that Chiron shows to his mother. It just adds another level of authenticity and complexity to the characters. Of course, the diner scene where Kevin and Chiron reunite is heralded as the most significant scene in the film. For me, it dragged for too long, but I can understand how pivotal it was in signifying their relationship and how Chiron became the person he was today. The ending itself is perhaps unsatisfying, but gives yet another reminder of how life is never what you want it to be.
Now, the acting in this film is top-notch. It’s so amazing to see how each of the actors playing Chiron has managed to maintain all his mannerisms in a way that you really think it’s the same actor growing up. All three of them should have been recognised for their performance. Naomie Harris as this cocaine-addicted abusive mother was such a different role and look that I would not have recognised her if I hadn’t previously known she was in the film. Apart from look, her mannerisms and accent are just so different from her previous roles. It’s a shame she didn’t take home an Oscar. It was a scarily good performance, not only as a drug addict, but also as a sober mother who is trying to reconcile with her son. The raw emotion was just overwhelming. Of course Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae do excellent jobs, with Mahershala taking out Best Supporting Actor this year at the Oscars. His role isn’t big, but it’s powerful and it’s so key in the third act in building Chiron’s character. Janelle Monae has had two big movies come out (Hidden Figures being the other one) recently and she’s a really underrated actress. She has huge potential in the future. One last mention. Andre Holland plays Chiron’s close friend and could-be lover Kevin during the third act. It’s really that restaurant scene that highlights his best performance. Even without words, he’s able to convey the tension, joy, confusion all at once at seeing his long-time friend.
So while I highly commend the acting, the plot for me was unexciting and dragged on. It’s not to say the story was bad, but it lingered too long in certain places and I felt nothing was driving the story forward. Having said that, I know I will be in the minority with my view, so by all means, do go watch this because there’s definitely plenty of things you can take away from this film. It’s an important cultural piece in our current political climate, so educating yourself can only be beneficial.
P.S. I love how the poster is actually the three actors who play Chiron. Didn’t notice until after I watched it!
1. Do you share my opinion on the pacing or did you find it ideal?
2. Which part was your favourite? Which was the hardest to watch?