At some point you've gotta decide who you wanna be. Can't let nobody make that decision for you.
Here's the problem about reviewing an award-winning film months after its release. On one hand there are numerous five-star poster comments telling you how much you should like it. On the other there are responses from some who've seen it post-plaudits and been utterly underwhelmed. It's had the hype and the backlash. I avoided Moonlight reviews until such times as I watched it, but even so I'd heard that it was beautiful and ponderous, artistic and pretentious, essential viewing and a waste of my time. So I did my best to push all that all aside and treat it like it was brand new - pre-reviews, pre-Oscar hoo-hah, pre-everything.
For the next two hours, film I have never seen, I am yours. Do with me as you will.
Well, I liked Moonlight. It was nothing to do with critics or Academy Awards or worthiness. I really deep-down-liked it on its own terms. Here's why.
If you haven't seen it, Moonlight is a coming-of-age story set in Miami, Florida. It observes the progress of Chiron, a sensitive and introverted African-American boy growing up in a culture that demands he be tough. His lone-parent mother, we quickly discover, is a crack addict, and while he is too young to understand his own sexuality, taunts of 'faggot' are hurled by the bullies who chase him. We watch him grow into adolescence and from there to young adulthood, played in turn by three actors. Throughout he is grappling with his sexual identity - the person he should be and the person circumstances dictate he must be.
The most involving aspect, in a film that defies expectations, is the boy himself. I cared about Chiron (or 'Little' as he is referred to in his earliest youth) from the start, largely because of young Alex Hibbert's vulnerable, near-silent portrayal. It's like the mirror opposite of Sunny Pawar's winning turn in Lion, but an equally authentic child performance. More than that, the actors who carry on his story (Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes as the teen and adult versions respectively) do so seamlessly, holding onto the thread of a single troubled life. The mature Chiron may have filled out physically, but the same hurting child lurks at his core.
There are other beautifully judged characterisations too. Naomie Harris plays Chiron's mother over the three time periods, convincing utterly as a damaged woman whose love for her son is compromised by addiction. Mahershala Ali (you may know him as the smooth Remy Denton in House of Cards) is similarly believable as a drug-dealing father figure. Hidden Figures' Janelle Monae provides much-needed maternal warmth. And Andre Holland, the adult incarnation of Chiron's friend Kevin, is understated but superb in the scenes he shares with Rhodes.
This is a film of silences - understandably, since the protagonist is so muted. But it's also one of profound emotional moments. A beautifully shot swimming lesson, an awkward teen encounter on a beach, the attempt by a mother who knows she's failed to reach her child. The camera lingers a lot, searching for what the characters (chiefly Chiron) are trying and often failing to say. If the melancholy classical score seems at odds with the environment, it ultimately fits a story of a boy dislocated from the world around him by nature and sexuality.
Moonlight is a story of painful self-discovery, with a problem-fraught love-story at its bruised, beating heart. It's the hood shot unashamedly through an artist's lens, so that beauty is found among the ugliness. Should it have beaten La La Land (or Lion for that matter) to the Best Picture award? I have no idea how to choose between different types of excellence. All I know is that Moonlight got to me, and that I'll watch it again.
Gut Reaction: It drew me in slowly and then hooked me with moments of intense poignancy. The closing scenes were a subtle kind of stunning.
Ed's Verdict: A director's passion project and three great performances combining into an authentic one. It's got a really good claim on my vote.