Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert) is a little boy living in a depressed black neighborhood where his mother, Paula (Naomie Harris) is a "crack whore." Chiron is befriended by a local drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae). Shy, withdrawn and spindly, Chiron is thought to be gay and is bullied, although he is treated more kindly by his friend, Kevin (Jaden Piner). Later, when the boys are teenagers (now played by Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome), they have a sexual encounter. After Chiron strikes back against a homophobic bully who forces Kevin to beat Chiron, the latter does a stretch in juvie. Ten years later, now a buff and handsome grown man (Trevante Rhodes), Chiron gets an unexpected call from Kevin (Andre Holland) ... Oh, how I wanted to love Moonlight, as I was delighted that a film whose lead character was both black and gay could win an Academy Award for Best Picture in today's climate. Unfortunately, an astute critic has to separate a film as political statement from a film as art. I realize the film's problem for me was not so much its subtlety -- as it's not that subtle -- but an overly low-key approach that almost completely strips it of dramatic intensity. Fully half the movie deals with Chiron as a boy (although the death of his father surrogate, Juan, is only mentioned in passing), with a good forty minutes showing Chiron as a teen. That doesn't leave much time for Chiron as an adult, and the film ends abruptly, making many in the audience wonder "is that all there is?"
True, the lead character -- who has been so uncommunicative and disaffected for most of his life -- finally reaches out to someone, revealing the sensitivity that remains under the surface, in the last few minutes of the film, but while this has internal importance, it is not exactly "dramatic," The ending hints at things for Chiron and Kevin that may never materialize. Frankly, there are quite a few gay independent films (which have never gotten the attention that Moonlight has) that have much stronger story lines. In fact, it could be argued that Moonlight doesn't so much have a plot as a premise, and one that is never fully realized.
While a film should be judged by what it is and not what it isn't, one can't help but notice that the movie, aside from the bullying aspects which are universal, never really deals with homophobia within the African-American community -- even Juan seems nominally pro-gay. (In fact, it never really deals with Chiron's feelings about being gay or if he even identifies as such.) Aside from the adult Kevin registering disapproval over the adult Chiron's criminal career choice, the film doesn't even deal with black attitudes towards drug dealers who help decimate their own communities. In fact, it troubles me that drug dealers are portrayed sympathetically in this picture. And that there are so many black stereotypes. (To judge from Hollywood movies, including those made by black filmmakers, 90% of the black community consists of drug dealers and crack whores.) Then there's the fact that the ending, with its intimate but non-sexual encounter, could be considered a cop-out. But far worse is the fact that virtually every character, including Chiron, is basically one-dimensional.
This last may not be apparent to the casual viewer because the acting in the film is uniformly excellent. There isn't a bad performance, and there's especially notable work from Sanders and Rhodes, and young Hibbert is amazing. While it's not at all unrealistic that a spindly gay kid could reinvent himself as a burly, macho-type, the casting of drop-dead gorgeous Rhodes could be considered pure Hollywood. Rhodes is great, but did the character have to be a kind of fantasy hunk -- as if Billy Batson had transformed himself into Captain Marvel? And while kids do still, unfortunately, call each other, including straight kids, "faggot," everyone's insistence that Chiron is gay seems strange as he is not blatantly effeminate in his deportment. Of course a movie about a "queen" would have been a very different movie.
The low-key, "minimalist" approach of the movie obviously worked for a great many people, but I wonder if as the years pass, when the political climate may have changed, if Moonlight will still be held in quite such high regard. I have a feeling that people who normally wouldn't be caught dead seeing such a film, but who went because of its Oscar, have seen few if any LGBT movies and have little to compare it to.
Verdict: Not a bad movie by any means, with some lovely things in it and excellent performances, but for me a major disappointment. **1/2.