(Dir: Barry Jenkins, 2016)
Sometimes you're left trying to understand why praise is being lavished on a film. Usually the film in question is decent, but for whatever reason you are left ambivalent to its charms, or at least don't subscribe to the view that it is doing something so seemingly special. That here is the case with Moonlight. It's been the buzz film since the festival's of Autumn 2016, culminating in the infamy of this year's Oscar's. A sensible viewer would try not to put too much stock in any of that because raising expectations too high frequently proves to be a fools errand, yet sometimes that's easier said than done.
By splitting the story into three parts that each focus on a different stage of Chiron's youth/life, it allows three different actors to shine – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. Each put in very good performances and we start to get just a little more from the character as he grows, learns more about himself and as the dialogue he utters/mutters increases ever so incrementally. Likewise, how his life intersects with a small pool of people across each stage anchors the story together, with more fine performances from the rest of the cast.
There's something to be said for subtlety and nuances of emotion in a story, but in Moonlight it's simultaneously too slight and too heavy-handed. For most of the film we continuously see why Chiron's life is so shit – his terrible mother, the bullying, the loneliness – it's all layered on so thickly. So the unsurprising act that ends stage two and the quietly affecting realisation and revelation that ends the film, all seem like too little for what's come before, lacking the full emotional payoff you expect / need. In some regard that's fitting for a character who struggles to grasp who he is, thus making small realisations about himself, or any type of change, a big deal, but you're still left wanting more because of what's had to be endured. It doesn't help that Chiron's life position in the final third feels like cliché. There is a logic as to why that's so, but the first two parts leave you expecting more from the character, making it harder to empathise with him at this point.
Those niggles aside, Moonlight is a good film, thanks very much to the acting and especially the direction. The way the camera moves and focuses creates an almost dreamlike quality at times, whilst feeling intimate throughout. This gives it it's own personality, which is important. Yet it never seems like the great revelation that the buzz and awards suggest, as you can't help but think you've seen this done many times before, frequently better. But lest we forget, films of this nature reach and affect everyone in different ways, so check your expectations at the door and find out for yourself.