Movie Review: “Moonlight”

Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, André Holland, Janelle Monáe
Barry Jenkins

A24 is without a doubt one of the most creatively exciting players in Hollywood today. They’ve made it their mission to champion less marketable films such as “Swiss Army Man,” “The Lobster” and “American Honey,” just to name a few from this year alone, opening up a whole new avenue for projects that don’t conform to the traditional studio system. It’s hard to imagine a movie like “Moonlight” developing into the festival sensation (and potential Oscar contender) that it’s become without the studio’s support, even if it might be slightly overrated. Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play, “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” writer/director Barry Jenkins’ sophomore effort is a powerful but flawed rumination on identity that chronicles the life of a young, gay black man across three different time periods as he struggles to find his place in the world.

The film opens in the late ‘90s as a soft-spoken boy named Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is chased by a group of bigger kids through his poor, crime-ridden neighborhood in Miami. Chiron comes from a broken home with no father figure and an abusive, crack addict mother (Naomie Harris), so when local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) takes a sudden interest in the runaway, Chiron immediately looks up to him as a mentor, despite Juan’s involvement in his mother’s drug habit. Several years later, Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) has grown into a lanky, introverted high school student who’s become the target of bullying as he tries to come to terms with his sexuality. Chiron finds some solace in his casual friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), but after a sexual encounter between them leads to a startling act of violence, Chiron’s life is changed forever. In the movie’s final chapter, a completely transformed Chiron – now a muscular, drug-dealing adult (Trevante Rhodes) who hides behind a thuggish facade – must confront his past when he’s reunited with an older, wiser Kevin (played by André Holland) at a Miami diner.

If there’s any question as to the film’s theatrical origins, “Moonlight” is so focused on character and its rigid, three-act structure that it often feels like you’re watching a play. While that’s certainly not a bad thing, Jenkins’ attempts to make the movie more cinematic exposes its biggest issue: it never amounts to more than a collection of lyrical, almost dreamlike moments rather than a fully developed story. “Moonlight” is a lot like Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” in that respect, clumsily jumping to the next chapter just as you’re getting comfortable in the current one. Granted, some of these moments – a frank discussion about homosexuality between Chiron and Juan, the tender sex scene on the beach, and most of the third act – are brilliantly executed, but the first hour is problematic, partially because Chiron isn’t a very engaging or identifiable protagonist.

Though Jenkins has done a good job of casting three actors who embody Chiron in distinct but similar ways, both Hibbert and Sanders come off a little stiff in their roles. It’s not until the audience is introduced to Rhodes’ adult version (which helps to inform the earlier performances) that Chiron feels more like a complete character. Naomie Harris is also disappointing as Chiron’s drug-addicted mother, who’s perhaps the only real cliché in a film that seems to pride itself on avoiding them. Fortunately, each chapter contains a great supporting performance to lean on, the best of which is Mahershala Ali’s charming drug dealer. The “House of Cards” star is such a force of nature in the opening act, single-handedly rescuing the movie from becoming too self-serious or grim, that his sudden and needlessly vague disappearance leaves a giant void that cannot be filled.

For as narratively ambitious and innovative as “Moonlight” may be, Jenkins is his own worst enemy at times, marring an otherwise excellent screenplay with some aggressively bad camerawork and sloppy editing that makes it difficult to become fully immersed in the story. Though Jenkins should be commended for tackling a subject matter that doesn’t get the attention it deserves, it’s not quite as great as its buzz would suggest. Nevertheless, “Moonlight” is still an important and affecting piece of LGBT cinema that comes at a time when the world (and especially this nation) needs more stories like it.


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