Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, February 1, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Moonlight (2016)

By the time the Oscar race ramps up – around November – I've heard of most of the front runners. The big surprises don't tend to come until the nominations are announced, when the Academy yanks something random out of their asses. Yet as best-of lists began to be compiled, and the films deemed the year's greatest started to emerge, a title I totally missed kept showing up. What was this "Moonlight" everyone keeps talking about? Even after reading up on it, I thought “Moonlight's” Oscar chances weren't great. A queer themed indie starring mostly unknown? Seems too highbrow for the AMPSA voters. I guess positive reviews are worth something, as “Moonlight” is liable to win at least one or two Awards at the end of the month.

Being based on a stage play, “Moonlight” neatly breaks down into three acts. Each section shows a different part of the life of a young black man. As an effeminate kid, he's called Little. His mother is a crackhead and he finds an unexpected father figure in her drug dealer. As a teenager, he's called Chiron.  He is relentlessly bullied at school, while internally struggling with his sexuality. As an adult, he's known as Black. Now a successful drug dealer himself, he is haunted by reemerging faces from his past.

“Moonlight” is a movie deeply concerned with internal struggles that mirrors the detached exterior of its protagonist. Chiron is a quiet boy. He's so shy that he has to be coaxed into keeping his head up during dinner. He grows into a quiet man, who has no apparent friends and lives in isolation. Despite the distance “Moonlight” keeps from its main character's inner world, the film shows an innate and in-depth understanding. It's a quiet, considered movie that keenly observes human behavior, seeking to understand it from the inside out. The script takes its time, revealing the hidden depths by carefully watching.

Another thematic concern of “Moonlight” is the deliberate contrast between the macho exteriors of its characters and the sensitive souls they hide. Chiron has to get tough to survive. By the time he emerges as the final act's Black, he's closed himself off to everyone. Chiron's status as a gay man is hinted at early on, when he wrestles too closely with a childhood playmate. In high school, his friend Kevin tells him he's good at keeping secrets, seemingly already aware of the boy's inclinations. (Kevin himself projects a macho bravado, bragging about his sexual conquests, that hides a secret.) Chiron's first sexual encounter directly leads to a violent beating, suggesting to the boy that he needs to hide his feelings. The film indirectly criticizes the masculine mindset, that associates toughness with violence and emotion with weakness.

This contrast emerges early on. Chiron's mentor, Juan, projects the exterior of a hardened drug dealer. When he's with the boy, he's quiet and wise. He teaches him how to swim, doesn't judge him for his emerging sexuality, and provides a safe place for him to stay. That last part is important. Chiron's mother is quickly developing a dependence on drugs. By the time he's a teenager, she's prostituting herself to support the habit, frequently kicking the boy out for nights at a time. Yet the film goes to lengths not to harshly judge either of them. The mother is emotionally abusive but does love Chiron. Juan, though seemingly a responsible person, is still the one selling drugs to the boy's mother. It's not an easy situation and nobody gets out clean.

As a gay coming-out story, “Moonlight's” approach is measured. Chiron has a series of erotic dreams, neither of which are explicit but instead are artfully shot. His encounter on the beach with Kevin is mostly seen in extreme close-up, focusing on unfurling hands, belt buckles, and intertwining lips. The final act has the two encountering each other again, years after the ugly circumstances of their initial falling out. This sequence also carries out the detached tone, as Chiron keeps his emotions close to his chest. Until the eventual, cathartic outpouring of pent-up feelings. Even that is paused and quiet but ends the film on a meaningful note.

Barry Jenkins' direction is extremely colorful, bathing the film in smooth blues and purples. Nicholas Britell's musical score is effective, playing the heavy emotions the characters keep inside themselves. The cast is full of strong performances, especially Mahershala Ali and Ashton Sanders. The result is a powerful film that is a little too inscrutable for its own good but still succeeds at the goal it aims for. During times such as these, films about acceptance and understanding such as this one are exactly what we need. [8/10]

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