By Ábel Bede
Growing up and finding our identity can be full of changes, doubts and drama. This is why coming of age films (such as Moonlight, the Academy Award winner for Best Picture) are popular among aspiring directors. The difficulty with this type of film is that it is hard to show anything new. Moonlight attempted to do this by dealing with the life of a homosexual, African-American man who lives in deep poverty. Unfortunately for its creators this does not automatically result in a high-quality film.
In Moonlight we meet Chiron, a kid who is growing up under tough circumstances. He lives alone with his drug addicted mother and struggles with his sexual identity as well as his life at home. He finds friends in a young couple who can give him the love he has not received from anyone else. The film shows episodes of Chiron’s life in three stages: age nine, age sixteen, and in his twenties.
In general the actors do their job quite well. It was especially refreshing to see the strong portrayal of the younger versions of the characters, however the only standout performance is by Naomie Harris who plays Chiron’s mother. The fact that Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for his performance is, however, beyond my understanding. He does not act badly, but does not deliver anything special either. Unfortunately, this more or less sums up the rest of the film as well.
The problem is that we only see episodes of Chiron’s life with huge gaps in between them. We can all guess probably what made Chiron a macho gang leader, but the film does not attempt to tell us. Unfortunately too much time passes between each part, meaning that the character development that Chiron goes through gets lost, and the film has to start again with a character that is a completely different person since seven years has passed.
Also, by strictly dividing the film into three stages Barry Jenkins does not allow his film to elaborate on any of them, which more or less works in the first two, but falls apart completely for the third. By ending the sections at a point where the story could have been developed and become interesting, the film has to build up its characters again and again. This becomes repetitive, and unfortunately the film sinks into boredom by the end.
Boyhood, a great recent coming of age film, achieved continuous development throughout the whole film. It did so by avoiding huge jumps in the character’s life which meant that the character development seemed more consistent while still covering a large time span. This is what Moonlight fails to do. Being less than two hours long, it cannot use the lack of time as an excuse, since it could have added at least an extra half an hour to elaborate on its characters and story.
Barry Jenkins attempted to direct the film in a unique way with the help of his cinematographer James Laxton. This resulted in a sometimes out-of-focus and shaky camera that is unique indeed, but sometimes becomes slightly irritating for the viewer.
What the film deserves credit for is the subject matter, and the attempt to show the struggles of gay men who try to coordinate their homosexuality with their masculinity.
Moonlight could have been a brilliant film that won an Oscar for more than its subject matter. Unfortunately it failed to achieve this, and by doing so it failed itself and the very people it is about.
Photograph: Altitude Films