Moonlight, the new work from writer/director Barry Jenkins, is a Very Important Film. Its Importance is clear throughout the film — long, lingering takes, lots of silent pauses, plenty of dodgy focusing, no shortage of shaky-cam shots, extended sequences of very little happening.
The film is the story of Chiron, a young man growing up black, and gay, in Miami in the unspecified recent past. Much of the praise Moonlight is getting — and it’s getting plenty — comes from the fact that it depicts the sexual awakening of a young, gay, black American man. I’m not black, nor am I gay, and so I can’t identify too closely with the challenges Chiron faces as he goes on his journey of self-discovery.
But does this mean that I can’t critically assess Moonlight? I’m not a deeply troubled thug, but I enjoyed Pulp Fiction and could understand what was being depicted. I’ve never been to India, never lived in oppressive poverty, but I found lots to engage with in Slumdog Millionaire. I’m not an angst-ridden teen girl, but I got a lot out of Heathers. So I’m going to maintain that, while Moonlight didn’t speak to my personal condition, I can assess it as a film in its own right.
And it didn’t work for me. It is, as I have said, terribly Important, addressing as it does a community that has received very little cinematic attention. But it’s also very dull. Moonlight is told in three acts, each named after a different name by which the lead character is known during his life. In the first act, Alex Hibbert plays Little, Chiron as a primary-school boy, and has little to do except look scared as he’s picked on by his classmates who call him “faggot,” a word he barely understands, and is taken in for no apparent reason by Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his “woman” (his phrase, not mine) Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Juan is, of course, a drug dealer — most of the male character in Moonlight are drug dealers — who tries to protect Little. His mother Paula (Naomie Harris), briefly a nurse and then for the rest of the film a crack whore, albeit a crack whore with perfect teeth, a flawless complexion and great hair, can’t take care of him, partly because she’s buying her crack from Juan. In the middle of this, Little, who says, well, little, has a friendship with Kevin which is telegraphically homoerotic. Act two sees Chiron abused at high school, protected by Teresa, largely abandoned by Paula and seduced by Kevin. The third act, presumably meant to be the big emotional punch of the film, attempts with limited success to tie the characters together.
In the end, though, Moonlight manages to be little more than Ken Loach for the American black community, but without the humanising warmth that Loach weaves into the bleakness of his situations. Jenkins, working from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, has built a film that tries, but fails, to build characters through scenes that largely go nowhere. Act one offers little explanation for why Little is picked on; act two gives no indication of how Paula has sunk from employment to turning tricks for crack; act three simply shifts Chiron from Miami to Atlanta and into the drug trade. Little, the young lad of the first act, is so blank as to be little more than a cypher; he has little to do other than look terrified as the grown-ups around him discuss what to do with him. Juan, Little’s protector, offers portentous speeches about the nature of blackness that in another film would leave him looking little little more than a magical negro friend, Teresa coming terribly close to Sassy Black Woman territory. Among all of this, Naomie Harris, who can, let’s face it, do little wrong, manages to produce a quite excellent performance as Paula, Chiron’s mother who descends into crack-whoredom while trying, unsuccessfully, to be a mother to her boy; this combines with a strong depiction of Chiron by Ashton Sanders in the one act of the film in which the characters’ arcs are more than just simplistic point-to-point leaps. Jenkins can’t bring himself to let Harris be anything but gorgeous, despite her downhill trajectory.
Moonlight will win awards, many awards. It is already attracting extremely positive reviews. But I’m afraid I simply couldn’t warm to it. It’s a little too self-important, its performances a little too knowingly powerful and intense. I know this will not be a popular perspective on this film, but that’s what I took from it.