Moonlight ★★★★

Unpopular opinion time: I'm not entirely convinced that Moonlight is a great movie. While the filmmaking is undoubtedly well-crafted, there are a handful of moments where the sophisticated look does not match with the gritty realism found in the narrative. Take the opening scene for example, where the camera circles around the characters arbitrarily for several minutes. Don't get me wrong, it looks great, but it doesn't serve the story or the emotions all that much. In addition, the reserved personality of Little/Chiron feels less like a character trait and more like an excuse for him being a rather uninteresting presence. Admittedly, him being a blank slate makes perfect sense once he grows up to be the "Black" persona, but since we spend 2/3 of the film watching these lesser incarnations, the film ends up being a lesser drama than it sets out to be.

But if the film does not achieve greatness as a whole, then it very much makes up for it in individual scenes. Because on the level of individual scenes, the film is really wonderful, both in terms of how much it avoids from being melodramatic and how it can make simple facial expressions feel like a gut-punch. Even better, it's full of these great sequences, from the talk between Little and Juan about a homophobic slur to the diner scene between Black and Kevin. Not only is this where the performances are at their best (Juan realizing that his drug-dealing is part of why Little's mother is a total wreck almost broke me, and Mahershala Ali's visible shaking plays a huge part in that) but it's also where the characters are their most well rounded. It may look like these people are basic stereotypes early on, but as we get to know them more, they reveal themselves to be quite relatable, perhaps even sympathetic. Chiron's transformation to Black really encapsulates this, as he embraces the tough "gangsta" stereotype, except he does this as a shell to hide his inner self, making his non-personality completely relatable.

I wish that someone with a better handle of sumptuous flair and realist drama helmed this, but Barry Jenkins at least executes these well enough individually that the film can't help but be moving, even if the combining of the two leaves something to be desired. With a fantastic ensemble and deeply resonant themes, Moonlight manages to be very good drama that wrings a lot of emotion from its many tender instances. It's not the "Best of the Year" material that many people think it is, but it's infinitely better than it could have been. I could only imagine how this would play out had it featured nothing but lazy stereotypes and emotional bits so manipulative that the filmmakers might as well shout out "THIS IS THE PART WHERE YOU CRY"...

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