Moonlight ★★★★★

I can't focus on anything until I've put down some thoughts on Moonlight. I'm not going to try to do a comprehensive review, because hey, just go see it yourself, with as few expectations as possible.

This is a personal film that uses small strokes and never comes across as Oscar bait. Describing the "plot" - sensitive young black man coming of age in tough neighborhood - gives people certain expectations about a "gritty" or melodramatic story, but Moonlight doesn't really care about those expectations. At the same time, it is a story of a sensitive young man growing up in a tough neighborhood, with a drug-addicted mother and a father figure who takes him under his wing. And the film doesn't shy away from those plot points, which could reasonably be described as tropes. But as used by Jenkins, these familiar stories allow us to focus on the characters, and lend a sense of myth.

Chiron's character...he's so quiet that at times he seems like a blank slate. But I think that's Jenkins' point: we are all blank slates, shaped by our environments and biological drives, and at some point we have to make choices about who we are. I don't think there was even one scene in the first two acts where we really see him open up. And when we do see him open up, just a little, to his mother and Kevin in the third act, it's powerful and real because we know it's so difficult for him. And although Chiron spends the first parts of his life reacting, protecting himself, in the third act we see him being truly brave: the scene that comes to mind is when he's in the restaurant and things aren't going how he might have imagined with Kevin. The camera turns to the door. But Chiron stays. Those are the kind of small choices that Moonlight cares about.

Here's the part where I admit I'm a total idiot: I did not realize Chiron's friend in the first act's field scene was Kevin. As far as I was aware during the movie, Kevin and Chiron met as adolescents. Learning that in hindsight lends much more depth to the relationship and makes me want to rewatch it with that in mind.

I'm trying not to compare Moonlight to Birth of a Nation, because they're very different films and they don't necessarily deserve to be compared just because they're both films about black experience with a lot of festival buzz. There are a lot of things that Moonlight does better than Nation, but the one that I'll mention was the use of surrealism, which in Nation seemed rather pretentious and distracting, but in Moonlight was used to just the right effect, e.g. the final scene, creating just a hint of myth around this story and avoiding the type of "grittiness" that is often forced down our throat by this type of film.

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