After 242 award nominations and 186 wins — including three Oscars and a near-perfect rating on Metacritic.com — we finally get to see “Moonlight” here in Japan with all the burdens of raised expectations. Can any film possibly live up to all that hype?
Drum roll please … oh, the suspense … the answer is: “La La Land”!
Touche. But seriously, just like the musical it beat for this year’s best picture Oscar, “Moonlight” is a pretty good film that has been embarrassingly over-hyped. Split into three acts — two intriguing, one tedious — the film follows a troubled, possibly queer kid named Chiron (also confusingly known as “Little” and “Black”) as he grows up on Miami’s mean streets. Like “Boyhood,” it’s not so much a story-driven film as one that seeks to find truth in life’s fleeting moments.
Scrawny preteen Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert, one of three actors who plays the character) is bullied by classmates and finds little stability at home with his crack-addicted mother (Naomie Harris). Chiron has one close friend named Kevin (Jaden Piner), who might be “different” in the same way but manages to hide it better. An older dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) stumbles across Chiron in an abandoned building and along with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), starts looking after the kid.
This first section of the film is good; we’re never quite sure what makes a tough guy like Juan act so tenderly toward the wimpy kid, but there’s a hint that Juan has repressed his own sexuality to survive on the street. Ali, who won a supporting actor Oscar, brings real depth to his character, but that also highlights how Chiron comes across as a blank; he’s so withdrawn and blocked up that it seems like something might be wrong.
The second act fast forwards to high school, and much the same dynamic is in play, except that Kevin is a little friendlier, the bullies meaner, and Chiron — now played by Ashton Sanders — learns that he does have a breaking point.
The final act occurs a decade later; Chiron has grown up to be a dealer much like his surrogate father-figure Juan, although confusingly, the actor who now plays him (Trevante Rhodes) looks nothing like the other two boys in the role. The skinny, awkward youth has morphed into somebody as hard and ripped as 50 Cent; you start wondering whether you missed the bit with the radioactive spider.
Director Barry Jenkins described his goal with the film as bringing “art-house to the ‘hood.” That pretty much sums it up: critics swooned because it’s all the quasi-mystical Terrence Malick tropes they love — hazy childhood memories somewhere between dream and reality, filmed in slow-motion — but from a nonwhite perspective.
YouTube channel Screen Prism, for example, describes “Moonlight” as being about “the fragility, mutability and complexity of a person’s identity over time.” What that means in terms of actual film content is that a kid who grows up thinking he might be gay does indeed turn out to be so. A junkie who feels lousy about being an addict winds up going to rehab. How complex is that?
Many people praise the film for breaking preconceptions, by depicting queer and sensitive characters within hypermasculine “gangsta” culture, but the treatment here is shallow and cursory compared to that in “The Wire,” which treads similar territory, particularly in its story of hardman Omar Little. Now that was groundbreaking.