Before anything is uttered, one must understand what exactly they’re getting into with Moonlight. I feel it’s necessary to properly explain a part of what Moonlight is and isn’t in order to properly check people’s prior expectations should they ever choose to go see it. It is not “Homophobic guilt.” It is not “White guilt.” It is not liberal propaganda dedicated to brainwashing the audience into believing that homosexuality should not only be accepted, but praised for being different and unique. What it is is a coming-of-age story of a young boy with a troubled life only made tougher by the societal pressures surrounding the stigma of homosexuality and a neighborhood ruled by drugs and violence. Anything more than that is purely speculation.
I had some predetermined expectations, so I feel it’s my obligation to correct those who may have those same assumptions based solely on the synopsis. There’s a special decadence to this film that separates itself from most others. One of those scenarios where, even as the credits roll by, one is still left thinking of all that had occurred. An example of a movie that saves its impact for the after analysis of a human mind properly paying attention.
Something that is truly underrepresented in Hollywood is the concept of silent strength. The art of subtlety and its impact on scenes of variable levels of empathy. Too often movies go for the crowd-pleasers, the explosive personalities, and explosions in general. The sort of movie that one can be both entertained by and emotionally invested in (though more of the former). Moonlight is a believer in such a concept, that less is more, and the behavior and actions of a person define them more than their words. It’s this gentle care to the quirks of each character that make them easy to relate to, while also giving them a coat of realistic fiction that transcends the daunting screen.
Many themes swim through the sequence of events that transpire, giving a lot to the audience to digest. Themes that may not necessarily be highlighted, but instilled within the environment of the film to give it some thought. Oftentimes the film won’t even focus on little easter eggs and clues that hint at a character’s hidden personality or troubles. Half the fun of watching Moonlight is being an active hunter, spying little hints at deeper things that rise from simple actions of characters. A sentence, a gesture, a look; any of these things and more build a bigger picture than what the surface of the story provides, which could justify the fairly simple tactics used to create that surface.
If there’s one thing that could be a fault to Moonlight’s grandeur is the monotony of its themes of conflict. How often is the concept of a good-moraled kid being raised in a small town of hoodlums and drugs predicated by the perception of power used in mainstream media? Quite often, I’d say. Bullying, drug abuse, and others take center stage to explain all the bad that occurs to the lead as a child, something that has been done many times over. It’s a matter of how the film manages to use these cliché aspects that will ultimately make or break the film’s impact on the audience.
Part of the thing that made the film so impactful was how maturely it handled its more sensitive material. Homosexuality, no matter one’s beliefs, is a sexuality, an attraction to another person. This attraction leads to love, in all its awkward glory. Moonlight not only gracefully gives reason to believe that loving the same gender is no different than loving the opposite gender, but also that it is different, because of the stigma it carries in society and the consequences the characters go through because of it. It’s mature enough to realize that the concept of love should be handled in a way that most human beings naturally understand, while reacting to the surroundings that come with it. Combined with the constant pressure of dealing with all that hopes to destroy the identity of the lead, it crafts a hesitancy within him that blends with the powerless nature that’s caused by his life.
What some may also point to as a fault is the importance of characters outside of the lead. The mother, a tormented soul that opposes the conception of the all-loving symbol. The friend, the trigger of a profound and confusing emotion. The father figure, the one source of solace within the harsh world. The only real constant throughout is the lead, Shiron, and the transition he goes through in three parts of his life. Some have importance all throughout, but on varying degrees. It may seem too calculated for people to get behind, with the empathy that could be retrieved becoming diluted by all the transparency. Some may find it cliché, while others may label it “unrealistic.” It’s a worthy debate for all those who see it.
For me personally, Moonlight is a very real film. It is a film that shows people being people, with all the horrible and lovable aspects to them. It creates a balance of good people doing bad things, and vice-versa, to create a harmony of multi-dimensional characters. Even the setting, which is so exhausted, still speaks to the foundation of a young man’s growth and the deadly cycle that repeats because of it. Thoughts of rebellion, finding comfort in solitude, wanting to defend oneself, but being unable to do so—these things speak to the heart of a precious soul, one exhibited flawlessly by the lead, which carries the film’s potential all the way until the bittersweet end.
However, there is some stir around the timetable of Shiron’s life. The child, the teenager, and the adult. Some work better than others, while all portray a number of different things that circle back at some point. Some have said that the adult version is the worst, making the final stretch feel a little anticlimactic. I agree with this to an extent, as the film seems to try and give an impression of Shiron changing from the circumstances that occurred to him as a teenager, only to suddenly warp back in a matter of minutes. Part of this is due to the life he once lived, a sort of reminder of his former self, which I think is played excellently. Still, it does come off as a little abrupt to not take the time to develop his new persona before showing him as he once was. It still had the realism to it, along with some proper and likable interaction between characters, but it is the weakest part of the film.
Acting is a key point in all films. Moonlight is an example of acting done perfectly to suit the characters and their insecurities. Many of the more prevalent scenes of symbolic nature wouldn’t work as well if the characters didn’t seem so tremendously realistic. Chiron as a teenager was a splendid portrayal of an in-between age fighting to become something he both wishes he was and wasn’t. A lot of that quiet strength comes into play during this time, with a lot of scenes, both triumphantly groundbreaking and awkwardly moving, depending on the determination of the lead. Every performance was at least good, even Janelle Monáe, whom I was surprised was even in this movie. It’s hard not to consider these characters people, with the amount of effort given to their performance (or roles).
The more I thought about it, the more I felt Moonlight was worthy of its praise. After winning Best Picture, it was a near guarantee that I see the movie, especially considering the political bias most media-owned networks have in regards to said “liberal propaganda.” Not to spite them, but to see if the movie is warranted praise for its craft and not its progressive message, which I can confirm is nothing of the sort. Progressive messages are used as a means of embellishing the plot and characters, but don’t preach to lift the aspects to levels of special treatment. It’s an intriguing example of using all that life has to offer in order to make an age-old concept more deceptively insightful. Moonlight has all that it takes to be one’s favorite movie, and if not for Arrival, would likely be my choice for Best Picture of 2016. For once, the awards got it right(?).
Final Score: 9/10
The rating for all other films can be found on my IMDb account.
For more, check out the March of the Movies Archive!