Main cast: Trevante Rhodes (Chiron, adult), Ashton Sanders (Chiron, teen), André Holland (Kevin, adult), Jharrel Jerome (Kevin, teen), Naomie Harris (Paula), Patrick Decile (Terrel), Janelle Monáe (Teresa), and Mahershala Ali (Juan)
Director: Barry Jenkins
Moonlight certainly made a splash by winning the award for best picture in the Academy Awards ceremony last year. You know how best picture award winners tend to have some kind of formula to them? This one ticks off quite a number of items on that checklist, and some of these items can be distracting. Especially distracting are the occasional headache-causing camerawork, when it’s obvious that the guy holding the camera is moving around in circles around the actor just because the whole “vintage close-up handheld cam feel” thing is still in after all these years. This movie also likes to insert scenes of the characters just brooding at the camera, or doing mundane things like preparing some food, as if the people behind this movie are aiming for some kind of deep imagery that only profound people would get.
But if I look past the annoying, gimmicky arthouse stuff here, the movie is quite the moving, bittersweet watch. On the surface, it is a coming of age movie focusing on a young man called Chiron. His mother is a junkie who eventually prostitutes herself to support her habit, and as a kid, Chiron befriends Juan, a drug dealer who is also rather unbelievably open-minded, kind, and more. It’s a good thing that Mahershala Ali does an excellent job playing Juan, giving that otherwise flat, borderline Hallmark-tier character nuances and hints of depths that the character otherwise wouldn’t have. As a teenager, Chiron would find a sister figure in Teresa, Juan’s girlfriend – Juan had departed the world a while back – and experiences his sexual awakening with his best friend Kevin, but that one comes to a depressingly violent end. And then, in the late third of the movie, the adult Chiron makes peace with Paula and reunites with Kevin for a possible happy ending. I say “possible” because these two have a lot of issues to work out, heh, plus this movie is too arty for something as plebeian as absolutes.
The thing is, Chiron is a blank slate, for the other more expressive characters to react to. While Mr Ali does an excellent job as Juan, Noamie Harris plays Paula as a complex character who is not so likable but at the same time not unlikable either. She means well, but her addiction gets the better of her, and she nearly loses everything as a result. Janelle Monáe’s Teresa doesn’t have too much to do here, but Ms Monáe also takes advantage of Chiron’s blank stage to play her role to the hilt, making Teresa a far more memorable character than she otherwise could have been. And in the late third, Trevante Rhodes is stuck in a thankless role in which all he has to do is to put his best sad hangdog face on as André Holland steals every scene the two of them are in together.
At the end of the day, the story of Moonlight is pretty standard, and the late third is something straight out of a Hallmark movie. Not that the Hallmark thing is bad, as I really like the scenes between Chiron and Kevin when they are adults, but things can get tad too sentimental as well, especially when Chiron starts staring at the beach as tinkly piano music plays in the background. But my god, it is a beautifully acted movie that can still make me feel like my heart has been bruised all over by the time the credit rolls. While I personally feel that it is quite overhyped by critics, it is nonetheless a solid drama well worth a watch. I watched it, and am I glad that I did.