Moonlight ★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


Okay, here we go: Why I think the year's most universally acclaimed film is sorta kinda not really very good. Took a second look to be sure, both because I'm always open to the possibility that I'm wrong and because I served on a festival jury with Jenkins a couple of years ago and liked him enormously, so take no pleasure in being a contrarian here. Had exactly the same reaction, alas. In descending order of importance:

• I'm generally allergic to stories about victims.

Hence my failure to appreciate many canonical masterpieces, including Sansho the Bailiff and Au hasard Balthazar. (You're in good company, Barry!) Characters who suffer as a result of some personal failure, however minor—the Greeks' "tragic flaw"—offer catharsis; characters who suffer exclusively due to the cruelty of others merely constitute an exercise in sadism. This bullet point really demands a lengthy essay, so just be advised that many of my contrarian negative opinions can be traced here, and feel free to ignore me when it comes to such films. The more someone onscreen is being hurt for no reason, the more I tend to disconnect. It feels like all the movie wants is my pity.

That's exacerbated in this case by my next issue (the one I'd use to make my strongest semi-objective case):

• Chiron has no personality whatsoever.

He is a blank slate, defined almost entirely by perpetual wariness. Even battered, neglected kids have lives. Chiron has none. The movie never leaves his side for nearly two hours, yet somehow never shows him expressing an interest in anything apart from warding off the next potential blow. People seem awestruck that the three actors who play him create a seamless performance, but the degree of difficulty is ridiculously low, because there's zilch that's specific about him apart from this one pitiable element (which generates instinctive protectiveness from most, but see previous bullet point re: yours truly). Juan, Teresa, Kevin—it's easy to imagine their lives when the camera isn't watching them. With Chiron, I find that nearly impossible. Granted, "who am I?" is the film's big existential question, but creating a vacuum at the center isn't the way to explore it.

• The whole thing is ludicrously contrived.

And in ways that smack of the advice you find in bad screenwriting manuals. "Raise the stakes," the Syd Field types insist, and so not only does Chiron regularly get bullied by assholes for being different, but said assholes also subsequently pressure the one person in the world who's expressed sexual desire for Chiron into beating the living shit out of him. It doesn't get much more shameless than giving the miserable protagonist a single fleeting moment of happiness and then instantly (I think it's actually the very next scene) snatching it away from him in the ugliest possible way. Likewise, I confess to mostly rolling my eyes at Chiron's final incarnation. Is it plausible that he would harden up considerably to escape his world of pain? Absolutely. But is it plausible that he would almost literally transform himself into the man who had been his childhood protector, right down to the wardrobe? That's more Screenwriting 101 nonsense: "Your ending should circle back to your beginning." I didn't see Central Intelligence, but Chiron's metamorphosis between 'Chiron' and 'Black' is like CGI-assisted fat Dwayne Johnson turning into The Rock. It's just over the top. Dial it down 50%, make him slightly more menacing rather than a barely recognizable musclebound badass (with a wounded little boy inside; kudos to Trevante Rhodes for conveying that so beautifully, even if I find the concept ridiculous), and I'd probably be as moved as everyone else.

Also, Moonlight commits the capital crime of continuing beyond a perfect ending: Kevin puts Barbara Lewis on the jukebox, cut to the front door's bell jingling, and THE END. Let us imagine what that bell signifies, who's opened the door and why. Back to the beach is more McKee/Field circling.


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