Friday, December 9, 2016

A Reel Review: MOONLIGHT

Telling a story in an unconventional way is a healthy thing for the film industry. Everyone loves something different once in a while, but filmmakers still need to strike a balance between the familiar and the alternative ways. After all, veering far off the course of traditional storytelling can lose an audience in a hurry, and staying tried-and-true can become dull and predictable. Such is the task for Barry Jenkins and his MOONLIGHT.

Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, and Andre Holland through three different decades of his youth), grows up in a tough Miami neighborhood where his diminutive size makes him an easy target for bullies. He struggles with his drug-addicted mother (Naomi Harris) and befriends a couple (Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae), and eventually lands into trouble which sends him far from home.

MOONLIGHT does not have much of a plot in the traditional sense, and instead plays out like a series of episodes in Chiron’s life. The film is divided up into three stages (with each one named after one of his nicknames that he picks up as he grows up), featuring him as an elementary school student, pre-teen, and then in his twenties. Each episode which sees him getting bullied, berated by his mom, and learning life lessons propels him to the young man which he will become, and the dots are not difficult to connect.

The film is different, in fact so different that it’s tough to find anything to hang our hats on. There’s a lack of focus as the so-called story meanders from one place to another, and even though director Barry Jenkins is playing with solid themes such as growing up in the projects and struggling with sexual identity, the episodic nature robs the movie of any meat. On top of that, MOONLIGHT is presented in a very real fashion, with scenes taking a long time to unfold…and the commitment to being real makes any real drama hard to come by.

Jenkins still crafts a fine film. It looks beautiful and the transitions between each era of Chiron’s life are well-timed. Music choices from the three different decades are well-chosen, and Nicholas Britell’s score is hauntingly beautiful. Pacing is an issue however, as the film feels much longer than its 110 minute running-time.

Acting is superb. The three actors portraying Chiron are excellent, with Ashton Sanders, playing the character as a pre-teen, having to do the most and best work. The highlight of the film is definitely how the three actors were able to mimic each other; looking a Chiron in his twenties, we can still see him as a little kid as the little ticks and mannerisms are there. Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monae are also excellent, (although Ali's character vanishes without explanation), but the show is absolutely stolen by Naomi Harris…who as a drug addicted mom goes through a lot of emotions and inner turmoil.

By the time the credits roll, there’s a “that’s it?” feeling, as MOONLIGHT has no climax…which is fitting since it doesn’t care about any semblance of story either. It seems Jenkins was too pre-occupied with being different to give us something to chew on…and the result is an empty stomach. MOONLIGHT is nice to look at and full of awesome performances, but sorely needed a traditional story to tell.


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