Moonlight (2016)

In Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, three fragments of a life make up a fragmented whole that is beautiful to look at but remains opaque to the end.

USA
3*

Director:
Barry Jenkins

Screenwriter:
Barry Jenkins

Director of Photography:
James Laxton

Running time: 110 minutes

Despite the fat, the muscle and the facial hair they put on over time to create a facade of machismo or of adulthood, many a man is still the same scared little boy inside he was when he was growing up. This is about as deep as Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight goes, unfortunately, and while this observation is a constant theme throughout the film and comes through in various ways, there is less to this widely praised coming-of-age film than one might have hoped for.

Moonlight is a three-part story depicting the life of a sensitive young man, Chiron, who is prone to bullying and grows up in a single-parent household in Miami. In the three parts, which sketch his life as a boy, as a teenager and finally as a young man, Chiron is played by three different actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), all of whom bring sensitivity and a slight awkwardness to the role.

But the film’s most potent portrayal easily lies in the first part, and Jenkins seems to ackowledge as much in the opening shot: Juan (Mahershala Ali), a calm Afro-Cuban drug dealer in his late-30s, leaves his car to cross the street and speak to Terrence, an 18-year-old boy who works this street of the rundown Liberty Square neighbourhood for him. Terrence has clearly had his fill of drugs already and appears slightly dazed, but while he fidgets out of nervousness or fearfulness, Juan lazily puffs on his cigarette and asks him how his mom is doing. All the while, the camera drifts around them in an unbroken take, clearly suggesting that Juan is a bringer of peace and tranquility, an idea quickly made vivid when he sees and then saves Chiron, who is being chased by a group of bullies.

This initial encounter between the drug dealer and the taciturn boy, whose mother depends on drugs and makes money spending her nights in the bedroom, is unexpected, but Juan’s care is soon complemented by the evident compassion that his girlfriend, Teresa, has for the boy. This concern for Chiron’s well-being, which obviously helps him on his way to becoming an adult, is most pronounced in a beautifully written yet highly improbable scene in which Juan and Teresa explain, with the greatest tact imaginable, the meaning and implication of the word “faggot”, a word Chiron’s own mother used to dress him down: “‘Faggot’ is a word used to make gay people feel bad.” Although the intent is admirable, this moment set around the dinner table of a low-income drug dealer in the 1980s is wholly improbable – wishful thinking in a story that in all other respects clearly strives for realism.

Moonlight‘s most glaring fault is also its most appealing aspect for a wide audience: It tackles the issue of homosexuality very gingerly by using only one incident in each of the three parts to remind us that Chiron is gay; if not for these all too fleeting moments, we might have completely overlooked his struggle. The film includes only one sexual act, and it is shot from far away so as not to offend the non-converted. In this regard, the climax is particularly vexing because a nearly 20-minute build-up does not get the dramatic release we expect (and seek). Instead, it fizzles out entirely, and we’re left with nothing more than a very unsatisfying head-on-the-shoulder moment of intimacy.

The spectre of Juan, who only appears in the first part, hangs over the entire film, and in the final act, upon seeing how buff Chiron has become, dealing drugs and sporting the same gold grills as his late father figure, this moment of recognition hits the viewer with a pang of compassion. However much he seeks to emulate his hero, however, we quickly learn that inside the muscled body an emotionally insecure is still hiding, unwilling to engage intimately with those closest to him.

Except for the dialogue, which is so authentically rooted in lower-income Miami that is not always easy to follow, the film is immediately accessible thanks to its focus on a single character who ages in front of our eyes, albeit not as seamlessly as in the equally superficial Boyhood. Jenkins’s soundtrack raises the beauty and the grit into the artistic thanks to the inclusion of the Laudate Dominum movement from Mozart’s gorgeous classical piece “Vesperae solennes de confessore” and – at a pivotal moment – Caetano Veloso’s performance of “Cucurrucucú paloma”, best known from its appearance on the soundtrack of Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (Hable con ella).

In the end, the film belongs to the actors, who emote and elicit our empathy thanks to their faces, their silences, their hesitation and their humanity. Surprisingly, one of the best-known players, Naomi Harris, who stars as Chiron’s drug-dependent mother, Paula, is the only one whose acting veers into over-the-top hystrionics as she momentarily portrays a character we’ve seen all too often before from characters who are drug addicts.

Moonlight is a well-intentioned, meticulously shot film whose rich colours and sense of place unfortunately never translate into sustained action or robust character development. Chiron gazes without interacting, is diffident to a fault and (except for mimicking Juan) shows little appetite for opening himself up to new experiences. This reticence ultimately leads to precious little progress and produces a film that merely pretends to be complex but is nothing of the sort.