Moonlight ★★★★★

2017 movie viewings, #28. Okay, chumps, I've finally seen Moonlight! Are you goddamn happy now, people?! As I've talked about here before, I tend to not watch many of these kinds of social-realist dramas, also often known by the dreaded term "message movies;" and that's because there's always such a high risk that such a movie will turn out to be a preachy, obvious, dour mess, the kind whose message tends to be, "Life is terrible and you should feel guilty about that," which the filmmaker then thinks absolves them from making a movie that's in any way interesting or compelling, since they believe it's the audience's duty to sit there silently through their terrible, preachy movie, not their duty to produce a movie that audiences will want to sit through in the first place. But I indeed ended up watching Moonlight despite this, because of a request from my therapist of all people, who like you reads my movie reviews here at Letterboxd on a regular basis and was curious to know what I would think of a movie like this. And I'm happy to say that, like the vast majority of the rest of the world, I ended up really loving Moonlight, the exception that proves the rule of how unwatchable most other social-realist movies are; and so in an effort to maybe teach a little bit about Audience Pleasing 101 to such filmmakers, I thought that instead of doing a traditional review today, I'd go through and point out some of the lessons director Barry Jenkins learned and used to such great effect here, starting with...

--Start with an interesting, unique take on the subject you want to take on. That's at the heart of what makes Moonlight so memorable, that it examines a subject that's been done to death (poor child in the ghetto turned into drug dealer in the 'hood) but then puts a fascinating spin on it, turning into a Boyhood-like long-form biographical look at the ups and downs of one such person, the joys and frustrations in their life, all the big and little things that went into them becoming the adult they now are. That's a compelling angle that instantly captured my imagination, versus the usual route of the filmmaker saying, "Look at this poor child in the ghetto! Look at how bad he's got it! Look at how guilty you should feel about this poor child in the ghetto who's poor and in the ghetto while poor and in the ghetto!!!"

--Surprise us. And that's of course the other thing that's been getting Moonlight so much attention; because our buff, gold-toothed, badass Atlanta drug dealer turns out to actually be a shy, painfully withdrawn gay nerd on the inside, and our movie is not really about "The Socioeconomic Conditions That Led To This Poor Child In The Ghetto Becoming Yet Another Unfortunate Victim of the War On Drugs (MFA Thesis Forthcoming)," but rather a deep and complex character study about how love and betrayal, the ethical contradictions of father figures being drug dealers, and the push/pull relationship our hero Chiron has with desire and his own body has led him to being the twentysomething adult he now is, with the ghetto childhood and crack-addicted mom certainly inlfuencing this personality but absolutely not being the beginning and end of Chiron's story, like is the case with so many other social-realist dramas.

--Give us actual stakes and conflicts that will draw us in. "Why should you watch my four-hour documentary about ailing coal miners in northern England? BECAUSE IT'S A FOUR-DOCUMENTARY ABOUT AILING COAL MINERS IN NORTHERN ENGLAND, PHILISTINE!" That seems to be the only answer so many social-realist filmmakers have as to why I should care about their dour, preachy message movie, that the situation exists in the real world and therefore we should be inherently compelled to watch it; and to that I say fuck you and your dangerous Stalinist attitude. I already volunteer and donate to a number of charities out in my non-movie-going life, and don't need to be forced to sit through some unwatchable movie simply so some stranger can make the point that they don't think I'm "doing enough;" I go to movies to instead be told a great story in a great way, to understand the world a little better than I did before, to be moved and entertained and be glad I took the time and money to watch that movie. That's what Jenkins gets so right with Moonlight, that he understands the inherent drama simply in this complicated protagonist trying to live his life, understands that you don't have to make your hero some angelic saint just to get the audience to root for him, understands that the frisson behind trying to make a taboo relationship work can be just as thrilling as a drive-by shooting with the rap blaring out the windows.

--Oh, and make sure your script is written well, you oblivious moron. There are other things I could go into regarding why I loved Moonlight so much, but I think I'll end today with this -- that still none of the things I just mentioned would've worked if the whole project hadn't started with the poetic, haunting play by Yale professor, Steppenwolf member, Royal Shakespeare Company-lauded, and MacArthur Fellowship-winning Tarell Alvin McCraney, one of the most important drama writers of our contemporary age. That's the secret sauce that makes all the rest coalesce so brilliantly, that it's simply written with a level of competence, poetry, and bravery rarely ever seen in films about rap-blasting drug dealers in the 'hood. It's a lesson that 95 percent of all social-realist filmmakers desperately need to learn, but that history shows us they never will (this same exact problem plagued the social-realist writers of the 1920s and '30s too, which is why out of the literal thousands of them who got published in those years, we now only remember a handful of the greatest, people like Steinbeck and Wright and Algren) -- that the fundamentals of storytelling, things like strong metaphors and flawed characters and and a properly paced plot, are absolutely crucial to any story being told, even ones that you think is the audience's duty to silently sit and watch without complaint, because the world is terrible and they should feel guilty about that. Jenkins and everyone else involved with Moonlight understood that, which is why people are going so nuts for Moonlight while your four-hour documentary about ailing coal miners died an ignoble "death by festival" two years ago. I hope that Moonlight's enormous success this year will help all these other filmmakers keep this in mind, although I'm not exactly holding my breath.

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