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‘Moonlight’ Review: Good, But Not Quite Great

By Courtesy of A24
By Julia J. Hynek, Crimson Staff Writer

The following review will be about “La La Land.”

Wait — I actually meant “Moonlight.” Sorry, I had to do it to you!

In any case, it is not easy to forget the “Best Picture” blunder of the 2016 Oscars, and it was here that I first heard about “Moonlight.” Written and directed by Barry Jenkins, this A24 film remained on my watchlist for the longest time before I finally sat down recently to watch it.

The first thing that struck me is that this is certainly an A24 film, and by that, I mean it shares the same artistic style and contemporary themes that many movies from this production company boast. “Moonlight” shone in its artfulness. The camera does a commendable job of capturing the Miami landscape that Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes), the protagonist, inhabits: The Cinematography makes sure to highlight the tough — like the abandoned housing projects — but also the soft — like the oceanfront. The story is rooted heavily in a sense of place, so this effective portrayal is particularly important. The shots themselves are rather slow and contemplative, allowing the viewer to sit in and immerse themself in the setting. And of course, the division of the film into three acts — each of which follows Chiron at a different stage in his life — is clever and enormously compelling.

My problem with “Moonlight,” however, is that I felt unsatiated at its close: Although the final shot of a young Chiron basked in moonlight upon the water is stunning, I realized that I still felt figuratively hungry. But why? The film depicts an important subject matter and seemed to be in competent hands, yet I couldn't shake the feeling that “Moonlight” ultimately was just good when it had the potential to be great.

The core issue seems to be that the film relies too heavily on its visuals, which leaves the writing and story underdeveloped. Nearly all of the characters and their dynamics with Chiron are very compelling and call for further exploration, but the film quells their potential before they have any substantive time to bud. Juan (Mahershala Ali), for instance, enters Chiron’s life in Act I and begins to step into a father-figure role for him. Furthermore, the film dips a toe into the water of exploring what it means for Juan to be Chiron’s mentor but also involved in the supply chain that feeds Chiron’s mother’s narcotics addiction. By Act II, however, it is matter-of-factly mentioned that Juan has passed away. Juan’s partner, Teresa (Janelle Monáe), is another figure whose role in Chiron’s life is only briefly discussed, and following Juan’s death, she virtually disappears as well.

Even for the characters that do last until Act III, their relationships with Chiron are not developed to their fullest potential. Chiron’s mother, Paula (Naomie Harris), is a tremendously interesting character. She begins the film being portrayed as a quite neglectful parent struggling very severely with addiction. There was ample room to elaborate on her story — perhaps more about her positionality as a single mother, her experiences with poverty, or her attempts to provide for a child while struggling with her own multiplicity of problems. Instead, she is mainly portrayed manipulating or abusing Chiron in Acts I and II; Act III then jumps to showing her many years later, clean and rather remorseful about the past. What happened in between?

Chiron’s relationship with Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, André Holland) is similar in that Kevin occupies the simultaneous position of Chiron’s romantic interest but also humiliator — a role that is complex, but whose complexity is not heeded properly. The boys have a confusing and undefined relationship, but by the end viewers are supposed to root for them to be together. I’m not entirely opposed to this concept, but I needed to be convinced along the way that I should believe and invest in their attraction/romance/love — which I was did not. The film virtually doesn’t discuss Chiron’s relationship with his own sexuality at all, and thus leaves no room for viewers to witness any personal and emotional growth or maturation he may experience as he moves through life.

Part of this is likely due to Chiron’s nature as a quiet and passive character. He is virtually silent for the better parts of Acts I and II, which is not inherently a negative trait, but does make it difficult for a viewer to understand his thoughts and feelings. Alternatively, these could have been expressed through Chiron’s behavior, but — as he is a passive character to whom things happen, rather than who is active in his surroundings — this also does not happen. Then, as his adult self, Chiron presents very differently — he is living in Atlanta, appears well-positioned in the local drug supply network, and seems well-off financially — as evidenced by his vintage Chevrolet Impala. He also visits his mother at her rehab facility, where they reflect on his youth and upbringing. There were some interesting conversations to be had here about Chiron’s personal and emotional development in relation to his mother and his native community, but once again, the path to this point is hazy.

Overall, I can see the vision for this film. It does what Hollywood needs: It elevates stories of intersectionality and marginalization, and does so in a way that feels authentic and raw. This is also attributable to its nature as a semi-biographical work, based on the experiences of both the original playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney (author of unpublished play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue”) and screenwriter Barry Jenkins during their own youths growing up in Chiron’s Miami neighborhood. The issue arises, however, when the story itself begins to feel half-baked. At times, the film is absolutely captivating — like the “Middle of the World” scene where Juan is teaching a young Chiron to swim. Here, everything from the score to the symbolism to the camerawork is flawless. At other times, though, the film feels more like a rough draft than a polished product worthy of the Oscar for “Best Picture” (although, maybe my knowledge of its accolades caused me to have unreasonably high expectations). Keeping all else constant, narrowing the scope of the plot could have allowed “Moonlight” to exercise its fullest potential: depicting richer, more nuanced dynamics and taking an already enjoyable movie to unbelievable heights.

—In her column “Gaywatch,” Julia J. Hynek ’24 offers her opinions on queer movies from the last twenty years. She can be reached at

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