Moonlight ★★★

Guess I'm an asshole?

Really torn on this one, as the structure is all over the place but its heart is so obviously in the right place. The imagery is nothing less than stunning, deep blues and purples instilling the story with a cool, borderline dreamlike feel. It sits on the precipice of realism, both a literal coming-of-age-tale and an abstract of broken adolescence. The Wong Kar-Wai comparisons are truly earned.

But no amount of stylish direction can save this from its sloppy script, each chapter building to a climax and immediately cutting to the next one after. The story never coheres, always reaching a point of high drama or introspection for Chiron before leaving him and jumping ahead a few years. The third chapter is easily the best one because it actually has some form of pay-off, yet even then Jenkins chooses to cut back to Chiron as a child, putting an emphasis on attempted poetry instead of committing to his protagonist's present conflict.

The film itself is propped up on about six or seven important scenes, all of which are quite fantastic—except the beating sequence; I don't know if onscreen bullying will ever not feel manipulative to me—but there's plenty of filler, most of which is solely about the community surrounding Chiron, featuring ancillary characters that are close to cliche, e.g. benevolent drug dealer, school bully, nightmare druggie mom. This isn't to say that Moonlight takes fault in emphasizing its protagonist's surroundings (there's a reason that many actors are in all three chapters while Chiron is played by different actors), but most of the characters are downright stereotypical and the performances overly theatrical. This doesn't rob the film of its emotional effect—that "Hello Stranger" needle drop made me melt—but it prevents Moonlight from being the deep, nuanced deconstruction of masculinity that I've seen it being held up as. It certainly swings for the fences in its high art aesthetic (Mozart!), but it all feels so shallow in the face of its cookie-cutter characters.

I can't totally commit to my opinion here, as I usually get two or three films totally wrong every year and this could very well be one of them. I won't deny some of my negativity is reactionary to that 99 Metacritic score. I can't call it a token critical darling, being held up as a masterpiece because of its content instead of its construction, but I still had to consider that possibility for a little too long. I'm happy it exists, but I love it more as a gateway for other, better stories of its ilk. Ground-breaking, yes, but like most ground-breaking films it will be surpassed. Jenkins's total empathy is something this godforsaken world needs though, and I don't doubt that he'll make a film I love one day.

Ranking 2016 (at #31)

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