Wednesday, February 1, 2017

My Dilemma With "Moonlight"

I had a lot of trouble with "Moonlight," a deeply intimate portrait of a black gay youngster in Florida named Chiron, portrayed at three different times in his life by three different actors. This is a pure character piece, looking at extremely personal episodes in the lives of Chiron and those closest to him. It's fearlessly candid, as we witness Chiron's rough living situation, troubles at school, and an early sexual encounter, and how they shape his life.

We first meet Chiron, nicknamed "Little" as a child, played by Alex Hibbert, who lives in Miami, Florida. Neglected by his mother Paula
(Naomie Harris), Chiron is taken under the wing of a local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe). In the second segment, Chiron is a teenager (Ashton Sanders), trying to hide his sexuality while enduring a school bully, Terrel (Patrick Decile). Chiron's only friend is another boy named Kevin (Jharrel Jerome). We see the two connect, and then later reconnect later as adults, played by André Holland and Trevante Rhodes. Chiron is now an intimidating drug dealer and Kevin works as a cook in a restaurant.

I struggled to get myself into the same headspace as Chiron, though he's a very sympathetic character. A loner who is deeply uncomfortable with himself, but yearns for affection, he flies in the face of the typical black male we're used to seeing in the movies. The first two segments of the movie, where he's a youngster who hasn't figured out how to shield himself from either physical or emotional harm, had me mostly onboard. The young actors are very strong, and the supporting adults around them are used wonderfully. I especially appreciate Mahershala Ali as Juan, who takes on the role of Chiron's surrogate father with great sensitivity. I was worried about Chiron because he was worried about Chiron.

The thirid section is where I ran into trouble. Adult Chiron and Kevin's tense evening together was a lot more difficult for me to parse, partly because Chiron's transformation from teenager into mature man is so outwardly dramatic, and partly because the portrayed events are so incidental compared to the previous segments. Until the last few moments, Chiron is a fairly passive presense, while his mother and Kevin do most of the talking. I had trouble connecting the younger versions of Chiron ot the stoic grown-up, even though I knew the tough exterior was a front.

The filmmaking, however, is exceptional, especially the use of music to reflect Chiron's inner world, and James Laxton's cinematography. There's an appealing lyricism to the images and the editing, and a tactility to the environments. Chiron's world is full of threats and ugliness, but it also has its moments of beauty and serenity. The two seaside sequences, one with Juan teaching Chiron to swim, and the other with Kevin and Chiron, are the clear standouts in the way they leave such distinct emotional and sensory impressions.

But as much as I admire what director Barry Jenkins accomplished here, especially with such challenging subject matter, in the end I didn't connect to anyone on a fundamental level the way I have with the characters in similar films. I keep thinking of Lee Daniels' "Precious," which wasn't nearly as well made as "Moonlight," but where I did find myself absorbed with the story. What is is about "Moonlight" that made me keep my distance, especially in that final segment of the film?

I'm still trying to work it out. Part of it has to Trevante Rhodes' performance, I think, and part of it has to do with the fact that the final part of the film made me uncomfortable. I didn't know where the story was going or what to expect from it. I don't know anyone like Chiron and I haven't seen many portrayals of people like him in the media. And suddenly being in such a personal place with him felt like I was intruding, like I wasn't supposed to be there.

Ultimately, I'm not sure if I like the film or simply appreciate it. There's no question, however, that it is something extraordinary, and I expect that I'll continue wrestling with the questions it raises for a long while to come.

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