Moonlight falls just short of expectations: Brevity of screen time led to performances falling short

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Rob Carraher
CONTRIBUTOR

In dramatic film, the human element is what draws the viewer in and makes the experience relatable. If the audience can feel for the film’s characters, the chance of an effective movie going experience increases significantly. In Director Barry Jenkins’ breakthrough hit, “Moonlight,” the human element is captured with luminescence.

The characters are near photographic, as are the growing pains they encounter as lessons unfold. “Moonlight” is a film that does a lot well, while borrowing from successful filmmaking conventions. As a technically sound film, the human experience is what really sells its final product.

“Moonlight” is broken into three segments chronicling a handful of memories from Chiron’s life in the Florida region. In the first third of the film, Chiron, nicknamed “Little” (Alex Hibbert), finds refuge with Juan (Mahershala Ali) and his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), from a life of being bullied and problems at home.

In the second segment, Chiron (Ashton Sanders) is juggling the anxieties of being a teen, understanding himself and his mother’s (Naomie Harris) bout with drugs. The final portion of the film portrays Chiron, now referred to as “Black” (Trevante Rhodes), as an individual influenced heavily by the consequences of his earlier life. He is reunited with his childhood friend, Kevin (played respectively by Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland).

Jenkins, who also wrote the adapted screenplay, has a vision to tell of the story of a young black man growing up in Miami, while alternating between typical life problems, and a handful of not so typical problems. He does this with an expertise envied by many filmmakers. It is hard to argue with Jenkins’ auteur brilliance. But the question must be asked; why this story must be told? The purpose isn’t abundantly clear, and this is the biggest issue with the film. With that said, it is incredibly difficult to knock the prowess of what is being displayed by Jenkins.

Jenkins has assembled a cast worthy of much praise. There is not a single performance in the film that could be deemed as weak. The tragedy lies in that audiences aren’t treated to more from these skilled actors. Ali and Monae are specifically great in their control of scenes. As the film comes to a close, it is disappointing these two actors didn’t have more of physical presence throughout the film. Harris is also fantastic in her performance of drug induced insanity. The film could be more centrally situated around her, and it would have been just as compelling if not more so.

All three of the actors who portray Chiron hit a subtle tone that leaves their work somewhat understated. This is especially true when comparing them to the charismatic character traits exhibited by the actors portraying Kevin. It should be noted many of these performances can be attributed to successfully written characters by Jenkins.

Where performances failed was less to do with the actor and more to do with the brevity of their screen time. Because the film is segmented in the way it is, character development isn’t great. Character purpose isn’t always clear, and it makes understanding the film difficult at times. The segments are a bit disruptive in the flow of the film. Just as things begin moving forward, they are cut short by a shift in the story. In the end, the impact is a little less because of the fluidity interruptions.

At the cost of sounding like the film isn’t good, which it is, it is imperative to make general comparisons to other films. In its narrative style, the film bears similarities to “Boyhood” (2014). Nothing has ever done exactly what “Boyhood” did with how it changed film-making, so “Moonlight” falls just short on this angle. The film also resembles what “The Place Beyond the Pines” did with segmented story telling. The difference is that a clear plot was present with that film, and not so much in “Moonlight.”

Staying within the same calendar year, “Moonlight” exhibits a sort of rawness that doesn’t always execute, and it does here, but “American Honey” (2016) with the same sort of feel does it slightly better. In an industry that strives on doing things uniquely well, “Moonlight” does things well, but the unique aspect isn’t present.

As unfair as it is, “Moonlight” falls just short of the expectations created by critics and award season buzz. It’s hard to figure out exactly why it doesn’t quite connect, but the narrative and unoriginal concept might be part of the issue.

However, if acting prowess, and ability to capture real life translated into grade-A cinema, this would make the grade. It is certainly worth the movie-going experience to marvel in the performances. Even if it isn’t the most original, “Moonlight” does a lot right, and should be applauded for its achievements.

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