Tremendous critical acclaim has greeted writer/director Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, which I finally caught up with last night (on the night it won Best Picture). So is it really that good? Well, certainly the acting and direction cannot be faulted, and as an examination of what it is like growing up black, poor and gay in Miami, it is undeniably insightful. It also has interesting things to say about the nature of masculinity, identity and the masks people wear to hide who they really are. And yet, for all these praiseworthy aspects, and although I am well aware I am going against critical consensus, my niggling suspicion is that Moonlight might be a tad overrated.
Perhaps a second viewing might change my mind, but I couldn’t shake a nagging sense of emperor’s-new-clothes when watching the film. I expected something more dramatic somehow. Admittedly it is a low key piece, and I can hardly fault the film for that. It is subtle, with a trio of superb performances from Alex R Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes as the lead character Chiron (who invariably is known as “Little”, “Chiron” and “Black” at key points in the story). The coming of age drama begins with him as a withdrawn and bullied child, when he is taken under the unexpectedly kind paternal wing of local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). From there we see the decline of Chiron’s relationship with his drug addict mother Paula (Naomie Harris), through to his teenage years learning to stand up to bullies. In one genuinely arresting cinematic moment, “Chiron” places his face in a basin of ice, emerging metaphorically reborn as “Black”, the drug dealer he grows up to be. Yet throughout all this he secretly yearns for his lost love Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland respectively in the different time periods). Because homosexuality is a taboo part of the culture Chiron and Kevin grow up in, violent peer pressure eventually crowbars it’s way their all to brief relationship, with destructive consequences.
Again, I cannot emphasise strongly enough that the performances and direction are first rate. Moonlight is completely convincing in that respect, and the screenplay (based on a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney) is simply but brilliantly structured, with understatement and nuance to spare. By the way, for those who appreciate warnings about such things, the film contains strong language, drug use and sexual content (the latter handled relatively discreetly).
Yet as I write this, I really can’t quite put my finger on why this didn’t connect with me the way I wanted it to. Perhaps awareness of overwhelming critical acclaim meant expectations were too high. Sometimes it takes a film a few viewings to really click, and whether or not that is the case here, I cannot say at present. However, based on one viewing, for all its undoubted merits, I have to confess I admired Moonlight rather than loved it.