The critical stars sometimes align; the right movie arrives at the right time in the right place for the right crowd. With a weighted average critical evaluation of 99/100 on Metacritic after 44 reviews were considered, Moonlight is such a movie.
But then…why did I exit the theater so unimpressed?
It has unimpeachable intentions. Films seriously and directly considering the gay experience have been unfortunately scarce in the US cinema since its inception up until this awards season. Moonlight tackles not only what its like to slowly come to terms with coming out, but the intersection of this experience with growing up as a black Cuban immigrant in Florida. The writer/director grew up in Miami which lends the film at least the superficial air of authenticity.
However, direct access to the subjects of a film can’t bridge the gap left by extremely underdeveloped characters and a disingenuous appeal to the “lyrical”, “laid back”, “subtle” realism of recent US indie directors, ostensibly taking after Terrence Malick etc. The haziness and physical exhilaration of childhood is conveyed through handheld POV shots. An act of violence in a high school is telegraphed with lots of intense shots of facial expressions and a kid walking down hallways. The emotional tenor of scenes is always kept low-key to avoid seeming to prod the audience into specifically feeling something, or in other cases (Moonlight being one) at least much less aggressively coercing one into feeling the “right” emotional response at the desired time.
As we follow protagonist Chiron from childhood through adulthood, the characters surrounding him seem to only exist in their relation to him and particularly his being gay/poor/black. They seem so little tethered to the film proper as to be aggressively auditioning themselves as deus ex machina more than even properly functioning as such. A drug dealer named Juan decides with no discernible or even suggested motivations to try to be a surrogate father figure to the protagonist as a child. Why? Because the film needs him to. We learn little to nothing about Juan besides that he has somehow made a comfortable middle class existence for himself by distributing crack cocaine, and that he really really desperately wants to progress the plot of the film. Juan’s girlfriend takes a liking to Chiron and behaves like the stereotypical middle class mother type. Chiron’s actual mother is addicted to crack and sells herself to support her crack habit. Chiron is actually positioned between the mother and the whore. Neither character seems to exist besides as a contrast to each other or to make Chiron’s life miserable. Later, a bully decides to target Chiron because he thinks Chiron is gay. For the purposes of the film, the bully again exists only to create forward-seeming plot action for Chiron. This sheer functionality on the bully’s part becomes almost surreal once we realized we’ve learned so little about Chiron. We can only presume that every waking moment of his existence revolves around pondering his burgeoning homosexuality or getting shit on by characters around him. Nothing gives a sense of anything having happened prior to the film starting and the characters’ lives are lazily and cleanly intertwined over multiple decades in a way that suggests more something outlined at a screenwriting workshop than life. Both Chiron and his tormentor exist as two ciphers pulled together to torment/be tormented.
If the film had set up a tone invoking a dire nihilism this might be seen as meaningful structural feature. However, the tone established is largely one of haphazard and careless prettiness and directorial flourishes. The development of characters comes from the unsubtle subversion of tired stereotypes instead of the consideration of people as such. This “subversion” has attracted a lot of attention and praise. However, at the end of the day, we still have another movie that feels like Precious-another paternalistically racist film made to reassure the NPR crowd that while on the inside we’re all the same, most black people are still just happily poor (one character outright says this towards the film’s end) or selling/doing crack. The characters being ciphers serves the ultimate purpose of all ciphers in the commercial cinema-to leave an opening large enough for those in the audience who want to believe badly enough to insert their own projections.
In the film’s final third, we’re shown Chiron’s adult life. He’s become a drug dealer and “worked his way up”. Nothing we see about him really suggests that the drug trade was anything more than an alternate way to a middle class existence. We see none of the hardships or inconveniences, or really anything that doesn’t tie a nice little knot with some element of the first third of the film.
Someday a great film will be made about the rich intersection of subject matter that Moonlight bungles. Perhaps this film has already been made and I never saw it. In either case, Moonlight fails to live up to the hype.