Moonlight (2016)

Moonlight was one of two films that swept the nominations during the Oscars earlier this year. La La Land went on to win most of them but Moonlight did win some important ones including the award for Best Picture. It’s also notable in a few other ways, such as being an all-black film, one that touches on LGBT issues even. I had high expectations for this one going in but it unfortunately was mostly a disappointment.

Chiron is a frail boy living in Liberty City, Miami who is frequently bullied by his classmates, his only friend being another boy Kevin. One day while escaping his tormentors he takes refuge in a seemingly abandoned crackhouse where he meets Juan, a drug dealer. Juan and his girlfriend Teresa take pity on him, especially after Juan realizes that Chiron’s mother is a prostitute addicted to the drugs he sells. Flash forward some years later and Juan has died of some unspecified reason, probably related to the drug trade. Chiron is still bullied and Teresa has become something like a second mother to him. Chiron maintains his friendship with Kevin and one night while smoking a joint on the beach together, it becomes evident that they are attracted to each other. However the next day the school bully pressures Kevin to attack Chiron and Kevin gives in. Rather than snitch to the authorities, Chiron attacks the bully in class, causing him to be arrested by the police. The next flash forwards takes place after Chiron has been released from prison and is himself a drug dealer.

The main reason this film ultimately disappointed me is that there are multiple interesting things going on in here but in the end it chooses to focus exclusively on Chiron’s homosexuality. While there’s a lot of dramatic mileage in portraying a childhood sweetheart story involving two black men in the US, it’s also such a simplified Hollywood take on a complex life. What happened for example to the character of Juan as a replacement father figure? There’s even a sort The Wire vibe in how even seemingly powerful figures like Juan are caught up in the vicious cycle of the drug trade and Chiron just falls into it with the experience of being in prison only hardening him as a criminal. I feel short-changed when all of that is abandoned in the last act to define Chiron solely as a person who has struggled with homosexuality and harbors feelings for his boyhood friend. The ending feels unearned given how much the characters must have changed in the intervening and the different experiences they have gone through.

The contrast is especially stark right after watching Toni Erdmann. The German film presents characters who are distinct from one another, yet can’t be pithily boiled down to some easily definable essence. I also dislike how Moonlight can’t avoid being sentimental using obvious musical cues to guide the audience’s emotions despite the gravity of the issues it addresses. Having the audience stumble uncertainly onto insights of makes the characters tick makes the experience feel more raw and more earned.

At any rate, Moonlight remains an admirable film well worth watching. The acting is great and I loved the poetry of the film’s title. I’m just disappointed in that I think the relationship between Chiron and Kevin is the least interesting of his various interactions and wished there were more scenes of Chiron and Juan.

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