If you’re a film buff who uses the Academy Awards as convenient, if not consistently reliable, shorthand for the praiseworthiness of a year’s cinematic offerings, you know what’s coming up this Sunday evening. You probably also have some sense of which movies are considered the front-runners in the major categories, based on all the other kudos that pile up ahead of Oscar night. If you pay any attention to the trades and fanzine websites, or you like to place bets, you may have an inkling of the murky tides of popularity and backlash that tend to occur among the field of favorites (as of this writing, the momentum of the La La Land juggernaut is reportedly ebbing). And if you make a point of trying to catch most of the heavily nominated films, so that you don’t end up simply rooting for the only one that you actually saw…well, this week is your last chance for the 2016 crop.
If it’s any comfort, your humble Almanac Weekly movie reviewer never manages to see everything either. But the critical buzz for Barry Jenkins’ coming-of-age tale Moonlight was so strong that I finally made it to a late run at the Empire South Hills 8. It may or may not still be there when the new batch of movies comes out on Friday. The Regal Galleria Mall Stadium 16 is advertising Moonlight’s return this weekend, and it’s reasonable to expect a few more local viewing opportunities if it gets some love from the Academy.
For a newspaper reviewer (as opposed to an academic film critic writing about cinema in a broad historical context), waiting too long after its release to appraise a movie can be a mistake, and I have a feeling that I might have reacted more enthusiastically to Moonlight had I not had my expectations raised so high by previous critical hype. Though its cinematography has been much-lauded, there are numerous scenes in Moonlight that look and sound as low-budget as The Harder They Come, using more shakycam than I find enjoyable and with a few exchanges of mumbly dialogue that I couldn’t make out at all. For viewers who didn’t grow up in a hardscrabble environment like Liberty City, Miami, the surface of this film is a tough veneer to crack – as impenetrable as the long silences of its young protagonist.
Perhaps that’s as it should be, since this is a story with many levels, based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Simply to describe it as an account of growing up black, gay and bullied in a poverty-stricken, drug-infested Florida housing project falls far short of the nuances of a life that defies categorization. Moonlight is not a “message” film designed to raise social consciousness; it’s a very personal tale of one young man who is feeling his way along step by step, trying to figure out who he is, and of a handful of people who influence him most strongly.
A crux moment occurs in the first of the movie’s three acts, when protagonist Chiron (pronounced Shi-ROHN, not KY-ron as in the centaur) is a runty middle-schooler played by Alex Hibbert. Tormented by classmates who call him “Little” and “gay” and “soft,” he finds temporary refuge and surrogate parenting in the comparatively palatial home of the neighborhood drug kingpin, Juan. Mahershala Ali is quite wonderful in his portrayal of this man who, while tough and wary as a professional criminal needs to be, is neither stereotypically macho nor lacking in compassion. He tells Little/Chiron not to let other people give him names or definitions that he doesn’t want, and leaves the kid plenty of space to grow into his own barely budding homosexuality. Little wonder that by the third act, when grownup ex-con Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has adopted the nickname Black, he has also embraced Juan as a role model.
But Juan also sells crack to Chiron’s increasingly addicted mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), whose ferocious, smothering love alternating with neglect makes the youth’s home life lonely, unsupportive and unsupportable. Various life crises collide in the middle act, when high-schooler Chiron (Ashton Sanders) begins to push back, rather than to flee his problems. Sparks of hope are kept alive by his friendship with (and burgeoning attraction to) Kevin (Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/André Holland), seemingly the only kid in his school who resists ostracizing Chiron.
A lot of the tragedy that occurs in Moonlight is dictated by the social structure of poverty and systemic racism (though white characters are conspicuously absent from the cast, except as background diner patrons). Particularly sad are some of the things that don’t even get said: the matter-of-fact way in which African American boys in the projects assume that prison time will unavoidably be part of their life narratives, for instance. But each character finds his or her own way within the limitations of that structure, and not every outcome is negative. Hope still flutters in the bottom of Pandora’s box of horrors.
There’s more to be said and appreciated about this movie: its spare-but-lovely score, its sensual, metaphoric use of water and moonlight, the fine acting even by the youngest of its cast. Whether its subtle strengths will worm their way under the skins of Academy voters enough to supplant the much-more-accessible La La Land for Best Picture honors is a question on which I would not care to bet. Ultimately Moonlight is a cri de coeur against pigeonholing, in favor of humanity and warmth, and worth seeking out.