Movie Review: ‘Moonlight’
Starring: Mahershala Ali, Naomi Harris, and Janelle Monae
Plot: A young man deals with his dysfunctional upbringing at 3 different moments in his life
Moonlight is told over the course of three chapters following the character of Chiron (also referred to as “Little” and “Black”) at different moments in his life: childhood, teenage years, and young adulthood. The first two chapters (“Little” and “Chiron”) remind me of Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life, specifically its ambition to mythologize growing up. The weird camera angles and selective replaying of events work like trying to recall memories or dreams. As with our actual youth, we tend to remember things bigger, more unique, and in a more structured narrative than they actually happened. They are the folk tales of our lives.
However, Moonlight is much less impressionistic than Tree of Life. Filmmaker Barry Jenkins doesn’t try to superimpose poetry and Bible verses against Chiron’s story, nor does he ever compare Chiron’s journey to that of existence as a whole, none of the pretentious elements that turned a good amount of people off from Tree of Life (I still dig it though). Instead, Jenkins goes for simple truths and universal appeal. It might not seem like it at first because it revolves around Miami’s African-American community’s struggle with drugs (and that can seem very specific), but the nuances of Chiron’s personal journey can be echoed in all of our personal histories. That vicious cycle of poverty and drugs that we have seen in other movies is being extended to a tale of negative self-image, and the actors playing Chiron was surrounded by supporting characters that resemble classic stereotypes but are portrayed with renewed sensitivity, especially Mahershala Ali’s misunderstood drug dealer.
Alex R. Hibbert (childhood Chiron), Ashton Sanders (teen Chiron), and Trevante Rhodes (adult Chiron) create a consistent character in Chiron. They each grant him a quiet thoughtfulness, thus making him perpetually insecure about his own identity. Unfortunately, in this consistency, they seem to have forgotten to develop Chrion or offer him anything resembling growth. The first two chapters move with a youthful vigor leading up to a rare moment of decisiveness for Chiron, but the third chapter comes to a hard stop. It is a neat and easy resolution to the drama, glossing over years of struggle, in order to start tying up loose ends. It was as if a chapter between the second and third was cut out, and it robs the film of a third act. It settles for an epilogue instead of a conclusion.