Running Time: 111 mins
Director: Barry Jenkins
Cast: Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Alex Hibbert, Andre Holland, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe
(QFT Screening Belfast, 21/02/17)
A timeless story of human self-discovery and connection, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.
Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight arrives to the UK and Ireland, much like La La Land, amidst a barrage of critical hype and a recent win at the Golden Globes for best drama (beating out the superior Hell or High Water). Does it live up to the hype? No, sadly it doesn’t and it is somewhat lost on me how this film has received so much praise. It’s not a bad film but I’m tempted to think that Hollywood and the critical hype machine that often determines what gets Oscar nominated and what doesn’t are doing their best to make up for the fact that the Oscars have a diversity problem and have had for quite some time.
Well, not just the Oscars, Hollywood in general. They have a major women problem too. But to get back to the point, after last years #OscarsSoWhite# fiasco, there has been a major course correction for the academy in 2017. This can only be a good thing so long as it doesn’t happen to be a one off or token gesture. Real change does not happen overnight.
Moonlight is directed by a African American and has an almost entirely African American cast and you can’t say that happens a lot. Outside of Spike Lee, most people would be hard pressed to name an African American director and how often do you see a film (or TV show for that matter) with a largely African American cast? That this film was able to be made is genuinely great and it deals with homosexuality in the black community too which is seldom portrayed on the big screen (or small screen) and in that sense too, it’s an important film. It’s just not a particularly interesting or involving one.
To say that the film moves at a glacial pace would be an understatement and at just over two hours, for me at least, it dragged. Slow place is fine if you are slowly being sucked into a piece but I never really felt I understood what the main character Chiron was going through. Part of that is down to the performances of Alex Hibbert and Ashton Sanders (portraying the child and teen versions of Chiron respectively) which are strangely stilted and one note.
And that’s a pity because in a film about identity and loneliness, it really relies on the performances to suck you in emotionally. Part of the problem too in down to Jenkins’ direction. Moonlight is rather pretty at times to look at but that’s all style. Substance is lacking in this film and for fans of Jenkins’ previous film (and I count myself as one), the criminally underseen Medicine for Melancholy, it’s all substance and very little style.
On the surface, Medicine for Melancholy is a kind of romantic drama with shades of The Before Trilogy but it doubles up as a fascinating look at race and identity for two African American twenty-somethings in a predominantly white city. It’s a very lo-fi film (almost mumblecore before that awful term was invented) but it has a lot of charm, warmth and something to say. With his latest film, Jenkins has improved as a stylist (He’s obviously been watching some French New Wave) but as a story-teller, I’m not sure what Moonlight is trying to say. It’s a very cold, almost austere film at times.
The story is essentially about an African American kid trying to come to terms with his sexuality whilst trying to survive being raised by a drug addicted mother. There are no stars in this film (though you may recognise Mahershala Ali and Naomie Harris) and it’s about marginalized and lonely people. It’s an important film in so many different ways and I wanted to be invested emotionally, yet for the most part getting through the film was a chore.
Some saving graces come in the form of Mahershala Ali (playing a mentor type to Chiron) and Janelle Monáe (as Ali’s girlfriend) as they give lovely performances although they both have rather limited screen time. Monáe in particular is a stand out with a very small role and I would very much hope to see her on screen again.
Trevante Rhodes shines too as the adult version of Chiron who we see in the final third of the movie and I almost wish he had been given the most screen time as his performance had a nuance and loneliness that really came across on screen. Still, the last act of the movie crawls along at a criminally slow pace.
And yet again I would probably fault the direction for the final third of the movie. The final segment sees Chiron reunite with his childhood friend and love interest, Kevin (André Holland), after several years apart. Both actors give solid performances here but it goes on and on and dragged to the point where I told the person sitting next to me that I wanted them to bone already so I could go home. I know that Jenkins was going for sentiment and longing here but it just came across as soporific.
Moonlight is clearly a movie that is very important but it’s a pretty dull film. It has obviously grabbed some people but it left me cold. Of all the Oscar nominated films, Loving and Hell or High Water are still the best and likely future classics but neither of these two will win as critics have determined it will either be La La Land or Moonlight. In terms of gay cinema, Moonlight isn’t as good as Julian Schnabel’s Before Night Falls. Whether you are gay or straight, that’s a film I would heartily recommend.