When Boyhood came out in 2014, it had a lot of hype around it. Not only because it took Richard Linklater 12 years to film (which was really only 36 weeks), but because it supposedly gave audiences something to dwell on. The idea was that the use of ‘actual time’ as an element in the film played with the audiences sense of story. But the effect it had on me was more of a misplaced attempt to elicit nostalgia through the use of Souja Boy songs and being the “cool outcast kid” at a party scenes, neither of which I could personally relate to. I can appreciate the idea of trying out these gimmicks every once in a while. Sometimes they end up being really cool! But other times, the end up being a one-off film geek’s experiment, allowing them to play around with the medium. Look at Russian Ark. The whole movie is ‘a single take‘, which was meant to really immerse the audience in the cinematic experience, but ended up just being an exhausting version of something that Rope and Birdman did better. And don’t even get me started on that damn John Malkovich movie no one is going to see for a hundred years…. My point is: Boyhood seemed to rely heavily on the gimmick and lost a lot of what I would have loved to have seen in a story about growing up: the minute details of a boy’s experience growing up. Thankfully I did not have to wait twelve years to see Moonlight.
I had seen little and heard a lot about Moonlight before it’s release. I knew it was a festival darling and was going to be a great start for first-time director Barry Jenkins when I read a number of glowing reviews around this time last year. But for some reason I didn’t see a trailer until much, much later and when I did get my first visual glimpse at the film, I was disoriented. It looked like a movie about troubled youth in a troubled neighborhood with a soundtrack provided by a depressed Yo-yo Ma. I was happy to see that it didn’t look over-pander-y, as many Brad Pitt-produced projects can be, but I was also still a bit lost as to what exactly it was about. I mean, as I said earlier, Boyhood had scarred me and I have had reservations about these ‘growing up’ stories ever since. But I didn’t want to be out of the loop come the awards circuit and thus made the good decision of sitting through the ethereal magic in Moonlight.
The first thing Moonlight does right is stay brutally honest. It doesn’t try and amplify its dialogue for plot-furthering purposes, it doesn’t try and stretch its characters in order for them to be relatable, and it sure as hell doesn’t force conflict on our protagonist in an unnatural way. It begins by dropping us in the middle of a day in the life of our protagonist, Chiron, who happens to be running away from kids who are trying to bully him in a poor neighborhood in Miami. Thankfully, there are tons of crackhouses for him to hide in and he takes full advantage. Enter brooding father-figure/drug deal/style icon Juan, who finds our hero and shows audiences a less polarizing perspective on drug dealers. As it turns out, they’re much more complex characters than the the media might reveal! This particular one happens to empathize with our young protagonist and in a protective manner, attempts to shield him from the darkness in the hood.
There’s something very sweet about their relationship. Juan finds a soft spot for the child despite a severe communication barrier (Chiron doesn’t speak for the first twenty minutes) and the kid finds a father figure, mentor and also the realization that he’s gay. There’s one telling scene where Juan takes Chiron swimming for the first time. It’s filled with gratuitous imagery of a muscular man, courtesy of Mahershala Ali, baptismal symbolism and a swelling orchestral soundtrack which climaxes as the boy is finally let out on his own to brave the waves. Juan really does pull at your heartstrings with his benevolence (and impressively normal home life). I mean, in some ways, he puts actual fathers to shame. He’s a reassuring individual who monologues about the comforting nature of the universe and the interconnected nature of the black community and somehow is really accepting of the gay community in the 90’s…yeah right. Compare him to Ethan Hawke’s character in Boyhood. Maybe that’s why that kid struggled. His dad was in his life, but in kind of a half-assed way where he plays awkward catch-up with his kids his whole life. But Juan does have one major fault holding him back: he sells drugs. Ultimately, that stain on his record is troubling for Chiron. He’s looking to grab onto something normal. He wants those experiences that Mason from Boyhood has. But it’s not in the cards for him. The paths of destiny in front of him seem limited: work your ass off to survive or find another way to spend your money.
Unfortunately, Juan’s part in the movie is far too brief. But this isn’t Juan’s story in the end, it’s Chiron’s. And if there’s anything a bit expected about the film, it’s that Chiron’s life is filled with tragedy. I mean with a name like Chiron, which is apparently also the name of a greek ‘nurturing’ centaur, life is gonna be tough! With a life surrounded by drugs, missing father figures, and identity issues, it’s no wonder this movie garnered a little bit of buzz. But it’s a carefully crafted concoction of elements, dropping little gems of truth without shoving them down your throat. The genuine nature of a set up like this is hard to portray. And the problem is: it is a total set up for a cinematic goldmine. I mean if there’s something people love watching, it’s the glamorized version of the lowest wrung of America’s socioeconomic ladder. And it also helps if they’re black, because then they can really play up the “random white person comes to intervene for the better of the main character”. I think of films like The Blind Side or The Help, where the path to victory in the struggle for black equality relies in the intervention of some caucasian hero. The role is so vital to the film, they even gave out an oscar for it! Oh man. That ol’ academy is so easy to play to sometimes. Nonetheless, the typical pandering that one might expect from an film like Moonlight doesn’t seem to be present. It’s subtle. It has a lot of those elements that I really hate in those other movies – minus the ‘savior’ white people – but it forces you to work to find them. It’s message and motivations are not being forced on you in any way and because of that, it seems much more genuine.
I think it manages to not feel like one of those movies (despite what this year’s Oscar’s Honest Trailer might say) because, in part, because Barry Jenkins has spoken about the very authentic connection that he has to many elements of the story. Every year we see a number of films which are advertised with the ‘based on a true story’ label in an attempt to elicit a degree of ethos from the viewers. But cinema is already used as a way for people to relate to entities other than themselves, they manage to draw in audiences who like to feel that link to the real world through the screen, even though a good number of those films take great liberty when attempting to remaining true to the source material. It also feels like, with those films, if you have to state ‘based on a true story’ or ‘inspired by true events’, aren’t you having to stretch further than you need to in a way? I mean, come on. It’s a movie! A piece of art inspired by life! Let it be just that. And Moonlight takes this approach. It pieces together very real parts of many people’s day to day reality and I believe that without them having to say anything. Hell, even on the technical side, there’s nothing ‘fake-looking’ about the film. I do find myself partial to this Fish Tank-style of filmmaking with an intense depth of field, dialogue-light script and lack of traditional set. I think it provides more of an immersive style of filmmaking than some words on a poster ever could.
The story structure is another key element bolstering Moonlight‘s authentic feeling. Told in three simple acts, the film doesn’t explore any unnecessary aspects of this person’s life or waste time with characters who are there purely for expositional conversation. The first act focuses on his childhood and the formative experiences which would affect the following years of his life. It explores the base traits of this human being and gives us a springboard for where this character might end up. The second act takes place during adolescence. Teenage years are a time for critical changes for most people and we get to experience Chiron’s struggle with societal perceptions of masculinity, the difficulty of remaining loyal to family despite fundamentally destructive behavior, and the narrow roads to a successful and happy life in the future. Perhaps the biggest and most telling struggle during this era is his continued relationship with Kevin, a friend from childhood and the first act, who serves as a catalyst for exploring his homosexual proclivities, all while being deep in the closet himself. Also, Kevin is played in the final act by The Knick‘s Dr. Alginon Edwards (André Holland), who I swear I’ve seen everywhere these days. Kevin is one of a few characters who makes an appearance in all three acts, serving as another figure we can watch grow up – and his conclusion is quite interesting! These neat transitions between eras of Chiron’s act as beautiful little vignettes which capture the essential feelings and characters during each era of life. Additionally, they don’t have to put dates up on the screen to orient you during the film. How simple!
Moonlight doesn’t feel like it needs to answer any questions it wasn’t asked. By the time we reach the third act of the film, we see our protagonist Chiron come full circle and don the look of his former mentor (and perhaps first love interest). Not only does he look like a hyper-jacked version of Juan, but he’s also managed to follow his career path and his penchant for regretting life decisions! It’s a dynamic so Oedipal, it ate itself. Wow. Just as we’re witnessing a drastically changed man with a hardened heart, who has managed to shed his past affiliations and we’re wondering, ‘Where the hell is this all going?’, we are presented with motivation for the bittersweet final movement in this cinematic symphony, adequately accompanied with some Chopin-sounding music. Kevin calls Chiron and sets him on a long, contemplative journey all the way down from Atlanta back to his physical, geographical and emotional roots. It really brings the story full circle in an ending which trades explosive tension for subtle satisfaction and honesty. It manages to be a quiet finale and not have you wondering what the greater point could be.
And it looks like I’m not alone in my desire for candor in films nowadays. As I finish up this post, which I’ve been in and out of all month, Moonlight has appropriately nabbed best picture. Maybe that’s because the Academy took the Oscar bait-y elements at face value, maybe it’s out of some sordid sense of ‘guilt’ for the #oscarssowhite ordeal from last year and maybe, just maybe, it’s because they genuinely recognize the talent of the film! I can’t say their little slip up at the end doesn’t give me doubts about the latter. That being said, Moonlight was a fantastic way to end the awards season and black history month. Not because it was a movie about black people or gay people or gay black people or under-served communities, but because it was the story of a boy and his transition into adulthood. And it was real. It didn’t have to shove anything down your throat or say very much during the movie at all, but it managed to resonate nonetheless. Even though I personally have so little in common with Chiron, I still manage to feel a stronger connection with him than Mason from Boyhood. Brevity is the soul of wit, Shakespeare once famously wrote. Well leave it to Barry Jenkins to show that it doesn’t take 12 years to make a fantastic story about a real life. He was able to make a brief story with a little bit of wit and a whole lot of soul. So Warren Beatty, you keep waiting for the success of your magnum opus, Howard Hughes transformation piece, but just know hat they won’t be reading your name at the end of the night. Unless someone says it wrong, of course.