Moonlight is already one of the best-reviewed movies of the year, and it feels like a lock for a Best Picture nomination, especially in light of recent criticism that the Oscars are too white. It’s an unusually quiet, understated movie, often painfully silent, mimicking the internal suffering of its main character, a gay black man we follow from elementary school to young adulthood as he struggles to find any way or place he can feel comfortable in his own skin.
The story unfurls in three parts, with a different actor playing the lead character in each stage, with probably six to eight years separating each third. Chiron, variously known as Little or Black, first appears on screen as he’s chased by a bunch of classmates shouting about beating “his gay ass” as they run through a project in Miami, eventually cornering him in a boarded-up motel or apartment complex where he’s found by the local dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali). Juan ends up serving as a sort of father figure to Chiron, but the relationship unravels as Chiron’s mother, Paula, becomes a crack addict. The film follows Chiron through a miserable experience in high school as a bullied, silent kid whose one experience with sexuality is followed by betrayal and disaster, to his transformation as an adult into a jacked-up enforcer in Atlanta who comes back to Miami to reunite with his estranged friend.
If you want to summarize Moonlight as the gay black movie, you wouldn’t exactly be wrong, but you’d be doing the screenplay by director Barry Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney a huge disservice. Chiron is a target because he’s gay, something even his own mother can’t accept, but the theme of ostracism and isolation is broader than just that brought on by homophobia – and if Chiron were comfortable with his sexuality, or had a support system at home, or were just willing to defend himself physically (as Kevin tells him in part one), his story arc would be completely different. Chiron’s problem is not that he’s gay, but that he is who he is, with no one around to tell him that he’s okay, or to help him become a more assertive, confident person before it’s too late. You could just as easily say Moonlight is about a life ruined by the scourge of crack in poor black communities. I don’t think it’s any of those things, not individually, but draws on so many different themes that it manages to create a complex story with a bare minimum of dialogue.
And when I say a bare minimum, I mean it; you could probably write this entire script on the head of a pin using a Sharpie and an old English font. Chiron rarely says more than two or three words at a time, and often just doesn’t answer questions addressed directly to him. No one talks at length except for Kevin, and by the third act, it seems like it’s out of nervousness rather than him having something to say. The silences throughout the film are there to make you uncomfortable, to make you feel the characters’ discomfort, but as someone with the attention span of a goldfish I felt a little like I was watching Steve Trachsel’s directorial debut. The silences are undoubtedly effective, both for that purpose and for making the film’s bursts of activity that much more incisive, but oh my God Chiron just answer the question!
It seems like Moonlight is already generating Oscar buzz, and it’s on par with some of the best movies I’ve seen the last few years as a work of art, but I wonder if any actors in the film will earn nominations given how little time most of them get on screen. Of the three actors to play Chiron, only Trevante Rhodes really has enough to do to merit a Supporting Actor nod, and Ali could get consideration for the same. As much as I’d like to see Janelle Monáe, who plays Juan’s girlfriend Teresa and appears in two of the three parts, get a nomination, the character is too one-note for that, and Naomie Harris, who plays Chiron’s mother, has much more weight to her role as well as the bonus points from playing a drug addict. (The hair and makeup department did their best to make Monáe look plain, but failed.) I could see Moonlight getting Picture, Director, and Screenplay nods but whiffing on the four Actor categories, depending of course on what the rest of the field looks like; the Screen Actors Guild has a Best Ensemble category, however, and that seems tailor-made for a film like Moonlight that is the sum of many great, small performances.
I’m hoping to catch a few more of the leading contenders in the next few weeks – La La Land, Loving, and Manchester by the Sea among them – as my writing schedule permits.