A young boy tries to find his place in the brutal eco system of the Miami public school system, finding scarce comfort or connection with others in the world around him. Not exactly a study of race, education, narcotics, or sexuality, the film threads through and around these topics looking for the right question to ask. This film is a punch directly to the emotions without ever feeling manipulative.
This film was another careful study of a masculine figure unable to express his emotions, showing the coping mechanisms he develops. Whereas Manchester by the Sea showed the stoic lead in virtual shut down and denial, Moonlight depicts a character earnestly searching for a way to find an expression for his emotion, and a venue for that expression. Much more than usual, the film explores the environmental factors that force the character into dumb numbness and prevent their healing. This film also explodes the usual timeframe for a narrative, allowing the same characters to be revisited over the decades, to show how they’ve adapted to their circumstances. Like Boyhood, Moonlight selects its scenes carefully to show a thematic continuity so that it feels like three chapters in a unified story of developing an identity.
While possessing a lot of excellent qualities, Moonlight is far from perfect. Like all narratives about closed-in characters, it is a struggle to empathise with the lead character. That’s not saying much more than the problem with this stone is it’s very hard. It is also very hard on its female characters. More important than failing the Bechdel test is that it has a kind of Manichean perspective on the two major female characters: not quite whore versus madonna, but certainly opposite sides of the moral spectrum. While both actresses dominate the screen while they’re there, they nevertheless aren’t asked to do much outside of a certain range. I found the two women to be the most fascinating characters, far more interesting than the main character, and the underdevelopment of their stories feels like a major and critical omission. Having said that, this is still the most substantial role I’ve seen for Naomie Harris in a long time, though I missed Mandela, which was purported to have a major role for her.
My snap review of the film was that it was the major contender with La La Land for the Oscar, but as the days have rolled past, the film’s limited ambitions seem increasingly difficult. It’s selection of a central taciturn man searching for personal growth is a well-worn rut that’s substantially enlivened by being about a (probably) homosexual black man – but the additional factors that brings to the table all feel sketched rather than fully drawn, and the genre-consequent omission of interest in the equally ground-breaking stories of the influential women in his life are an unfulfilled promise.