In an exceptionally strong year for awards movies, Moonlight still stands out in the crowd. Character studies don’t get a lot more intricate and emotionally affecting like this – partly because of the way in which we’re allowed to view the central character, who goes by shifting names that mirror his uncertainty over expression of his true identity as he’s shaped by formative experiences that twist his desires and repress his hopes, and partly because Moonlight intimately covers the experience of a black gay man, something that mainstream cinema is liable to run away screaming from even as it takes steps towards inclusivity.
Moonlight and its closest Oscar competitor, La La Land, have almost nothing in common thematically, aesthetically or in terms of characters (they are definitely both films), but it’s interesting that they both possess the same strength, which is to fuse a brilliant precision in the film’s construction with a sense of unfettered emotionality and intimacy – to bottle up very specific components of a particular experience and stitch them together (please ignore all mixed metaphors from here on out) with meticulous attention to detail. Moonlight is remarkably efficient in what it does. Each one of the three acts tells its own complicated arc with a mix of characters who age throughout and figures who flit into and out of Chiron’s life within one act, but they knit together to create an entirely coherent vision of a life’s greatest moments of hope and lowest moments of despair laid back-to-back. The Chiron of each act is drastically different from the last – from scared boy to repressed teenager to hyper-masculine adult – but each change is completely true to the character, and to the circumstances that have pushed him there.
What’s so impressive about Moonlight is that it’s so far away from the overcooked Oscar bait that you could passingly judge it as if you peeked at the premise – the kind of Hacksaw Ridge pomposity and speechifying that plays super well in 30 second clips. The screenplay is notably economical with dialogue, because it’s content that the visually lush and evocative cinematography and the dreamy soundscape (this movie is fantastic at attaching poignancy to an image, like a beach or the ocean, and calling back to it just by evoking the sounds of that moment to suggest the power of memories in shaping Chiron), let alone the actors’ terrific performances, can suggest a well of emotion and conflict that a thousand words couldn’t match (a picture paints a… wait, what was the saying?). When Little asks his father figure, Juan, if he sells drugs, all it takes is a simple, weary ‘yes’ to suggest an endless amount of uncertainties and simple shame that Juan feels in his attitude towards his trade. And in the same scene, Little’s sudden question – ‘What’s a faggot?’ is enough to establish a scared child’s hopelessly difficult existence in a world that has already begun to reject him. Words are vital to Moonlight, but so is the lack of them as these characters struggle to articulate the powerful feelings that can often only translate into destructive action.
And this movie also boasts the kind of cast that, if there was a Hollywood fantasy league, you’d do well to dip into (and speaking of a Hollywood fantasy league, does anyone have some startup money I can borrow?). The three Chirons, bookended by the nicknames Little and Black, are all compelling emotional leads – especially Alex Hibbert as Little – but their central feat is to create performances that are simultaneously satisfying on their own, and perfect as one third each of a realistically evolving character. The actors apparently never met, yet there’s never one second of doubt that they’re portraying the same person with the same hopes and fears and struggles. The director, Barry Jenkins, may be a wizard.
The other two powerhouse performances belong to paternal influences that dominate Chiron’s life, yet with extremely different levels of actual involvement. Mahershala Ali, apparently wasted for four seasons on House of Cards, is ruthlessly good as drug leader/father figure Juan, capturing the strange dichotomy of nurturing paternalism and brash confidence in his environment to illustrate his own unique take on masculinity that evidently informs Chiron’s own struggles to find his place within his gender throughout his life, but he’s actually only in the first third. Naomie Harris has roughly the same screen-time as Chiron’s mother, but her role is spread over all three segments, during which Harris takes the stereotype of the junkie mother and deconstructs it to find the emotional realism of the inadequate yet loving mother within. She is so good, and in such different ways, and somehow she did it all over 3 spare days in her press tour for the last Bond film. They deserve every award being thrown at them.
I know it’s become the cool thing to use Moonlight as a stick to bash the more conventional La La Land, which obviously lacks the uniqueness of perspective that this movie has in spades, but realistically, they’re different enough that comparison feels reductive.. The fact that we can get both in such a close proximity is good enough for me. Personally, I found Moonlight to be better. It’s the masterpiece of the two – the passion project where nothing got lost in the wash and nothing feels out of place. It’s that rare movie that gets better when you try to pick it apart. It deserves the Best Picture at next week’s Oscars.
But if La La Land wins Best Picture, that’s fine too.
But in that case, Best Director for Barry Jenkins.
Awards shows are a reductive medium through which to discuss the complexity of art.
Moonlight – it good.