Moonlight March 31, 2017
With the exception of, I don’t know, Spotlight (2015) and Driving Miss Daisy (1989), the Academy has a tendency to throw trophies for Best Picture at the most eruptive of films, whether those eruptions be strictly emotional, strictly stylistic, or perhaps even a couple dashes of both. You can forget about your Ken Loach types and your Dardenne Brother sorts – voters like a little bit of DeMille-level extravagance in their cinema, fetishes leaning in the direction of visual swank paired with robust dramatics.
So when Damien Chazelle’s La La Land was mistakenly announced as the Academy’s favorite feature of 2016 by dynamic duo Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, it wasn’t much of a surprise. A fantastical cocktail of weepy razzle dazzle with the courage necessary to harken back to Hollywood’s golden age with conviction, La La Land seemed a fitting Best Picture winner. It’s a product too starry, too ambitious, and too, say, gobsmackingly beautiful, to fail.
So it was sorta kinda nice when it was revealed that the announcement was a mistake, and that Moonlight, a quiet, contemplative character study, was the actual winner. Not that I had seen the film at that point, but because it’s dependably nice when an underdog undermines a front-runner that can do no wrong in the eyes of critics and audiences alike.
It’s relatively pointless to base a movie’s merit on its number of accolades, but Moonlight’s Oscar triumph speaks volumes. Turns out that in our predominantly progressive 2010s it’s possible that a soft-spoken kitchen-sink drama with an LGBT slant can prove itself victorious in a sea of aspirational pieces with a feverish need to pander to muchness.
Which makes viewing Moonlight in the wake of the fiery acclaim dancing around its name a rather strange experience: one might expect a wildly emotional character drama with a fondness for catharsis. But in actuality is the film almost maddeningly understated – it’s so devoted to its naturalism that it ignores the power of an impassioned release.
But it’s nevertheless an atmospheric, poignant portrait of a man of the underrepresented everyday, underscored in the nuances of identity, sexuality, race, and class. Spanning decades, it follows the life of Chiron, a poverty-stricken Miami youth we see grow from a disaffected elementary schooler to a brawny street tough. Played by three actors – Alex Hibbert as a child, Ashton Sanders as a teenager, and Trevante Rhodes as an adult – we watch as he grapples with his sexuality in the midst of a fractured childhood (his mother, played by Naomie Harris, is addicted to crack) plagued by relentless bullying and crippling loneliness.
And Moonlight, self-assuredly written and directed by Barry Jenkins, never presents itself as anything other than a bare bones cinematic painting, never furnishing our pictorial desires because its being a character piece is of higher importance than thickly coated sentimentality or a simplistic happy ending. Not a character rings false: these humanistic creations, for all their flaws and their neuroses, live and breathe with the effortlessness of an everyman pounding the pavement. All the actors portraying Chiron bring gorgeously rendered three-dimensionality to their performances (Rhodes is especially affecting), and Mahershala Ali, as Chiron’s kindly father figure, and Harris, as Chiron’s junkie mother, make hefty impressions as victims of society who vary in their response to society’s cruel, dog eat dog propensities.
And yet Moonlight never moved me to the emotional highs it seems to promise early on. It concludes on a hopeful, albeit ambiguous note, that ensures that it remain stiffly sober rather than sensationally stirring. Such would be fine in most romantic films, particularly ones with a conventional beginning, middle, and end.
But because Moonlight feels so large, because it feels so epic in spite of its realism, we want nothing more than for its leading character to reach self-actualization, for a new page to be turned and a more fulfilling future to be promised. But it remains slightly cryptic, even if the enigma is, more or less, rosily shaded. That dubiousness doesn’t work here. But so much of Moonlight is masterful that we can forgive the way it alienates our visceral leanings. B