Movie Review - Moonlight (2016)

Jharrel Jerome (left) and Ashton Sanders
in a scene from 'Moonlight'
Based on a play by Tarell McCraney, this film follows the life of a black man named Chiron. The first syllable in his name sounds like the word shy, which is appropriate because the chief quality of Chiron throughout this movie is that he's shy. He's quiet and he's shy. This is an interesting and compelling quality for writer-director Barry Jenkins to reckon, but it also keeps us at a distance and it keeps us from ever getting inside the head of Chiron, especially as a little boy, which is a literal thirty percent of this movie.

The first time we see Chiron is when he's about 7 or 8 and bullies are chasing him. It's clear that these bullies are anti-gay, and they've made Chiron the target. The question, which is never answered, is why. What did Chiron do or say that would make these bullies target him as gay? Given Chiron is so quiet and shy, I'm not sure what the trigger or indication would be. It makes no sense unless Jenkins is trying to be ironic or show the bullies to be hypocritical.

There is a scene where Chiron enters a room and sees other boys there exposing their genitals to one another. Nothing is seen except the expression on Chiron's face but we hear the sound of pants zippers. This is not prompted by Chiron. He is an accidental witness to it. It's unknown how long these other boys have been engaging in behavior like this to which Chiron has been blind, but there is no evidence that these other boys are being bullied, so why is Chiron a target and not these boys who exhibit more outright, gay behavior?

A friend named Kevin tells Chiron that he gets bullied because he's soft. There's no real context for that word though. It could mean that he doesn't like sports. Kevin's use of "soft" proceeds a makeshift soccer game from which Chiron walks away, but soft could just mean that Chiron is quiet and shy. There isn't any clarification. Soft could describe any number of children at his school who are quiet and shy or don't play sports necessarily, so again why is Chiron being bullied?

A missed opportunity happened here as well. A new film that was released a month after this one called Esteros explored homosexuality with boys under the age of 13, something that isn't done often, if only a couple of times at all and never with American boys. Esteros is set in Argentina. Here, Jenkins had the opportunity to explore sexuality with a child under the age of 10, but the distance that Jenkins creates never allow us inside the boy's head, so who knows what Chiron knows or what he thinks about sex or sexuality.

The film is less definitive about its homophobia than it is about poverty and the drug culture in Miami. Of course, it's also trying to comment on black masculinity and in the middle of all that stands the character of Juan, played by Mahershala Ali (House of Cards and Luke Cage). Juan is the epitome of the black drug dealer of a certain age who is the king of his neighborhood. He's not unlike one of the gangsters in HBO's The Wire. Set in Miami though, he has an Afro-Cuban flavor to him. He has all the swagger and aggression that can make him charming and dangerous.

Yet, his arc in this narrative is missing a step. Juan realizes that Chiron's mom is a drug addict, and this seems to affect him deeply. He even feels guilty because her drugs ultimately come from his organization. It just seems as if the idea of a drug-addicted, single mother who's neglecting her son is brand new to him. However, given his age and experience, it can't be brand new to him. He must have seen drug-addicted mothers before. Therefore, he's surely seen troubled youngsters running around from those drug-addicted mothers before, so I never understood why he gave a damn about this one particular kid and mom.

The film jumps forward to when Chiron is a teenager, maybe 16 or 17. He's still being bullied. The main bully doesn't make too much effort to hide his actions. He's pretty direct. There's one scene where he compels Kevin, a teenager too, to beat up Chiron in broad daylight. The bully never puts a hand on Chiron but he certainly instigates. While it's happening, they are surrounded by students at the school, a ton of witnesses. Later, when a school official, possibly the principal, steps in, no attempt is made to interview those witnesses. Yes, there is a culture of "no snitching" but someone, if pressured, could have said something. Where were the attempts to find Chiron's attacker beyond just questioning a quiet and shy and traumatized Chiron?

Given that Kevin was the one who physically assaulted Chiron, it's odd that that assault isn't an issue. Chiron doesn't even acknowledge it afterwards or ever again. All of Chiron's anger gets directed at the bully who never touched him and not the friend who betrayed him. It's an odd imbalance that's never properly addressed. Even by the end when the movie jumps forward again and instantly Chiron is an adult in his early to mid thirties, and he meets up with Kevin, still it's never properly addressed. Chiron asks, "Why did you call me?" Yet, he should have asked, "Why did you hit me?"

Jenkins' script does an excellent job of dancing around the subject, the thing we want them to talk about. The actors who play Chiron as an adult and Kevin as an adult are amazing and dance very well together. Nevertheless, it's still a dance. It's fun and interesting and verbally well-choreographed, but it's a dance, avoidance. Eventually, the music stops. The dance ends and the crux of the matter has to be touched, preferably grabbed. Unfortunately, Jenkins doesn't touch it. He breezes by it.

He breezes by, leaving adult Chiron as merely an idea rather than a fully fleshed-out person. That idea is the echo or perhaps slight reflection of what Juan was. Hearing that echo or seeing that reflection is interesting, but it's not enough to form a complete picture. Of the fragments shown to us, much of it doesn't feel real. The crux of the matter is that Chiron has some, same-sex attraction, if he's not outright gay.

However, the movie posits that he's never acted on those, same-sex attractions at all in his life. Chiron has a smart phone, which means he has access to the Internet. As an adult, he's in Atlanta, a city with a vibrant, gay community. If he has strong-enough feelings to drive all the way to Miami, which is about a nine-hour drive, he might have had strong-enough feelings to click on an app on his phone or on his laptop to find other gay men. If not, then an examination of why he hasn't is in order. Given Chiron's power and ability, there doesn't seem to be anything in the way of adult Chiron exploring his same-sex attraction, so why wouldn't or doesn't he?

It's also a shame that two, incredibly, beautiful and sexy, black men like Trevante Rhodes who plays Chiron as an adult and André Holland who plays Kevin as an adult never really show any physical affection toward one another. The image of two black men kissing in a movie that's getting this much attention and wide-release would have been invaluable to so many. They arguably give the two best performances of any black actor all year. The two, teenage black men who play the middle versions of Chiron and Kevin, Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome respectively, hit home-runs as well. They all deliver deep acting efforts in less than deep character sketches.

Rated R for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence and language throughout.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 50 mins.

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