Monday, December 26, 2016

Moonlight Stroll

As film critics release their "best of 2016" lists, a handful of movies are showing up over and over again -- a likely precursor to a Best Picture Oscar nomination. One of the films appearing a bunch is Moonlight, and I recently watched it to see if it would make my list.

Moonlight is a film in three parts, based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney called "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue." Each section looks at a character named Chiron at a different age -- first as a child, then a teen, and finally a young adult. It looks at how, as part of growing up, he learns to cope with an absent father, a drug-addicted mother, being bullied at school... and being a closeted gay man.

Though there are a fair number of "coming out" films around, most are pretty lightweight in tone (and often, even more lightweight in quality). Moonlight stands out from the pack right away with its more serious approach (and with the caliber of its acting). But above and beyond this is a strong cultural element. Moonlight isn't simply about what it's like to accept being gay; it's specifically about what it's like to be gay in one particular slice of hyper-masculine black culture. There's a quality to the writing that feels personal and authentic.

Each of the three actors cast to play Chiron in the movie's three different time periods -- Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes -- does at great job of making you sympathize with the character. It's not an easy thing, as the character is (understandably) quite closed off, saying little and showing emotion even less. (After Manchester by the Sea, it seems this is the year for closed off characters in Oscar movies.)

But I did feel a number of distractions getting in the way of the movie for me. First, director Barry Jenkins employs a lot of conspicuous camera movement. In multiple scenes, the camera is moving so fast and/or so unsteadily that it not only calls attention to the camera, but to the idea that there's an operator holding it. It really pulled me out of what should have been private moments between two characters.

And while the story is primarily about Chiron, it does include a few other characters so vividly drawn that it's awkward when the movie doesn't pursue their stories. Most notably, actor Mahershala Ali is being talked about as a possible Best Supporting Actor nominee for this movie, and indeed is compelling as a drug-dealer-with-a-conscience that befriends the young Chiron. But he completely vanishes after the first act, leaving a hole in the story I don't think the audience was meant to care about so strongly.

Another aspect I'm not certain was intended is an odd tension in the final act. Hopefully without saying too much, it feels like there's a clear fork in the road of the story -- two paths it could go down to reach a conclusion. One of those options would have resulted in a very different movie, and I'm not sure the movie meant to suggest that as a possibility as strongly as it does.

While there's some good acting to commend in Moonlight, I feel it also has nearly as many elements working against it, resulting in a mixed experience. I'd give it a B-. If you're looking to view some of the movies likely to be in the conversation for this year's Oscars, Moonlight is good enough to be worth checking out. But if it doesn't sound like your cup of tea, it's not exceptional enough for me to want to change your mind.

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