MOONLIGHT, the highly praised 2016 drama is, to strum a riff off its disarmingly simple title—at once prosaic and poetic— illuminating. As a personalized story and mood-piece script it casts the compassionate glow of lamplight on an overlooked and ignored segment of society, a minority within a minority. That pointed a deserving spotlight on the gifted artists deftly wielding the lantern. Sparked by dazzling reviews, this switched on a pulsing strobe-light of glaring p.c. insistence, circuit-breakers flipping power from AgendaLand. In due time, those focused arcs of electricity will dim into the calm, objective reveal of sunlight. *
In the tough, impoverished Liberty City neighborhood of Miami, grade-schooler ‘Chiron’ (Alex Hibbert) is bullied by other boys for his small size and non-aggressive nature. His crack-abusing single mother (Naomie Harris) is more concerned with the pipe than with her son, who is taken under the wing of the hood’s sympathetic drug dealer (Mahershala Ali). When high school arrives, the now-sullen teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders) suffers continued taunting as his emerging sexuality becomes apparent, and his mothers condition deteriorates. As an adult, the transformed, steely Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) reunites with his one childhood friend.
Director Barry Jenkins wrote his script off a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney; both men are forged from the crucible of Liberty City and their story of the beset Chiron is one with their own, searing and believable from the inside out. On the surface, Chiron’s trial by fire, fated to be urban-poor, black, gay and undefended, would tend to specific, limited audience appeal (albeit one with a film industry bullhorn), but while the circumstances may be precise, the essential human dilemmas extend beyond status, color and gender into the universal—abandonment, fear, longing, existential despair, and you can be a Maine lumberjack, Chilean stewardess or Swiss accountant and relate to those.
The cast is uniformly exemplary, with the work from Ali netting him an Oscar for Supporting Actor. Ali’s a graceful and imposing presence and a skillful actor; while I think he’s better elsewhere (and would have given his Oscar to Jeff Bridges for Hell Or High Water), with this recognition his star has now risen. We fans from House of Cards can smile. The most effective turn comes from the surprising Harris, leaving her svelte elegance behind to dish wild-eyed venom as the cocaine-ruined mother (a further bravo! is that she shot her exhaustively taxing scenes in three days).
A labor of love, the deceptively quiet, cumulatively powerful film upset snappy favorite La La Land for the Best Picture prize and the Screenplay took a trophy as well. James Laxton’s cinematography plays images in a textured sheen that brings a sense of vibrant immediacy to the temperature-baked locations and pain-steamed emotions. A lament to loss in a world of hurt.
Along with its trio of wins, Oscar nominations went to Direction, Supporting Actress (Harris), Cinematography, Film Editing and Music Score. Low-budgeted at $1,500,000, the drumbeat of reviewers and Academy Award cachet helped pull in $55,500,000 worldwide. 111 minutes, with Andre Holland, Janelle Monáe, Patrick Decile, Jharrel Jerome and Jaden Piner.
* It’s a very good little movie, and it stays with you afterwards, but the lecturing, give-yourself-a-stroke reviews went into such embarrassing overkill of fawning gush you’d think it was written and directed by God. Less-evolved mortals, put yourselves on notice for “a cultural watershed”, “unbearably personal..an urgent social document” “it’s so good it may restore your faith in cinema”, “makes you see the world with new eyes–and then it owns you” (oh, for cryin’ out loud…get some fresh air). Those dastard few who timidly dared to offer that it just maybe was not the most astounding two hours since the doors of the Ark opened on dry land were pilloried on-line from one end of the Internet to Pluto and back and flayed in full-page editorials so foamed they’d make Ann Coulter cry. For a movie that is in part about the hurts inflicted on the different and the sensitive, this kneejerk paradox of bullying people into opinion-obedience would shame Rush Limbaugh. Somehow, the planet stayed on its wobbly axis after the underrated Crash ‘stole’ the Oscar from the overrated Brokeback Mountain (wait, can two & two be put together, or is that unfair to three?). If La La Land had won, would these wisdom-bestowing critics have committed suicide? Get real: it’s a finely wrought drama—sad, truthful and affecting— but the only lives it will change are those of the people who made it.