Wow. My first thought after watching this movie: wow. It’s not a favorite of mine. It didn’t connect with me on a deep, personal level like other movies have, but from an objective standpoint it was phenomenal. It was risky and bold and classic and fresh, and the cinematography alone was absolutely breathtaking. If you watch the movie muted, without any captions, it still tells a story. It’s still a work of art.
Before I talk about the movie itself, I want to touch on the hype surrounding it, at least in indie circles. So many reviews of the movie start and end with : an African American movie! An LGBT movie! A movie that really shows poverty! I’m not using these examples to belittle the story or its themes in any way, because all these themes are prevelant in the movie and they are thought-provoking ideas that stay with you long after it ends. I only want to say that some films get so wrapped up in the real-life consequences of the story they’re telling that they forget to actually tell the story. Moonlight doesn’t feel like a movie about a culture or an issue. It feels like a movie about characters and conflict. It transcends those labels that so many critics use to compliment it, and to me, that is some of the highest praise I can give the film.
I normally slip this in at the end, but because I mentioned it earlier and because it is such a powerful force in this movie, I have to mention it first. The cinematography feels like another character in the film. It’s not just a vehicle through which to tell the story; it is an integral part of the story. I’m no expert in cinematography whatsoever-the moment the conversation turns technical, about aspect ratios and cameras and lenses, I’m way out of my depth. But I can tell when something is different about a movie. I noticed many of the shots followed Chyron’s head as he moved around a scene. A lot of shots seemed abnormally long, and these immersed the viewer even more in Chyron’s life. The cinematography added a layer of intimacy between the viewer and Chyron, something that would have been difficult to create otherwise because of Chyron’s silent, closed-off nature. I also loved the repetition of certain shots, like the out of focus lights that blinked between transitions in the story and the image of Chyron standing up from the sink, his face dripping with water. They made the movie feel tight and clean, and they made me think.
I also loved the use of classical music in many of the scenes. On paper, it seems like an unusual choice, given the bleakness of the plot and how new and fresh the cinematography feels, but it just works. It elevates inconsequential moments to the same importance that Chyron places on them. The best example of this that I can think of is the scene where Chyron learns to swim. They did push this use of music a little far; when Kevin is in the kitchen, cooking the chef’s special for Chyron, I laughed in spite of myself at what was supposed to be a powerful, tender moment. The violins accenting his mediocre cooking did not resonate with me. I tried really hard to feel it, but it was just too much.
Juan was my favorite character in the movie. I totally understand why he had to die, and I loved the way they revealed his death, but I wish he could have had more scenes. I know, I know his presence wouldn’t have been as affecting if he kept showing up, but still. Mahershala Ali did an exceptional job playing him. He seemed like such a kind, good man, and in the scene with Chyron’s mother and later when Chyron confronts him about drug dealing, you can see how much pain he’s in. He wants to care for Chyron like his mother can’t, but he can’t be there for him either because he is a dealer. He wants so badly to be someone else, to be better for Chyron, but he can’t. The effects of his shortcomings are illustrated heartbreakingly in the third act, when Chyron has become everything Juan wished that he wasn’t. He wears the same clothes. He has earings. He’s also a dealer.
Speaking of acting in this movie, woah. Chyron’s mother was stunning, and I read she shot all her scenes in three days. She balanced her role just right, allowing the viewer to pity her and hate her without making you feel like you should see her in one light or the other. That shot of her at the end of the hallway, screaming into the camera, gave me chills. And the three Chyrons-how did they all look the same? I mean deeper than the obvious fact that they have the same hair color, skin color, eye color. I mean in their eyes- adult Chyron and teenage Chyron had the same eyes. They had the same watching, fearful, vulnerable eyes. Even though adult Chyron did look totally different (and he was supposed to), I still felt like I was watching the same actor because of that look. And the mannerisms-when the adult Chyron removed his grills before eating at the diner, it was such a prim, childlike proper movement that it broke my heart. Each actor kept that young, vulnerable side of Chyron in their performances.
Now for what’s obviously the heart of the movie- Chyron and Kevin. I liked how the two of them had one meaningful scene in each of the three parts. I absolutely loved the scene in their teenage years. It felt so organic and raw. And their conversations, about a breeze so beautiful you want to cry and the little annoyances that add up to a really good life, aren’t found anywhere else in the movie. They’re moments of beauty, moments of feeling that can’t be found anywhere else. I’m still not sure what the movie was implying. To me, Kevin was gay and loved Chyron. From that scene as teenagers, to the love and regret that was palpable in their phone conversation, to the last shot of the film, it seemed like Kevin really did care deeply for him. However, his reaction to finding Chyron in the diner threw me off a little. Maybe it was just a defense mechanism, or maybe he didn’t feel all that much for Chyron, beyond caring for him like a friend? Maybe that night on the beach that colored Chyron’s whole life meant nothing to Kevin. I don’t think so, but that seemed like an angle the movie offered as a possible truth.
I know it probably was supposed to feel more sad than anything else, but when Chyron broke the chair over the bully’s head, I was ecstatic. He deserved it. And it wasn’t healthy or wise, but Chyron finally stood up for himself.
Two things I did not get: I did not see the significance of the title or the significance of the ending. I was excited when I heard Juan say the title of the film in the story he told Chyron (who doesn’t get excited?), but the importance was lost on me. I knew it was a metaphor, like you always know when you get that feeling, but what that metaphor was is lost on me. As for the ending, I was startled. Was that a glimmer of hope? Was that another moment to sustain Chyron through the rest of his life, because he can never really find that relationship? Was Kevin finally confronting his feelings, or was he comforting an old friend he felt sorry for? I saw it as a moment of hope, but given the bleak, sad feel of the rest of the movie, I’m starting to think maybe not.
Objectively, the movie was a stunning work of art. Personally, I liked it a whole lot, but I didn’t adore it. I’m still thinking about it, though, and I saw it a few days ago. (Don’t worry, I wrote the rest of this discussion when it was still fresh in my mind!) Final thought: the poster was super freaking cool. I love it.