The coming of age genre splits into a thousand different branches, each one telling its own story. Moonlight is one of the more innovative angles taken by a movie that wants to watch a life unfold. It didn’t quite have Boyhood’s patience, so three different actors portray a young man who struggles through life’s many challenges. Some artistically abrupt transitions from one phase to the next essentially create three separate movies. Certain compliments or criticisms may apply to one, but not another. For that reason, it’s best to review Moonlight as a bizarre little trilogy.
Act 1 follows a tumultuous upbringing, poignantly stressing the importance of a stable household. Our leading man, initially known as Little, is more of a background piece while the supporting roles fill that void. It’s a powerful setup that, in many ways, forebodingly sets up the second and third acts. Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe are by far the best characters in the movie, both of which lend excellent performances to the story’s depth. Their frontloaded screen time is a big advantage for this first act, one that fades out of the screenplay as the film loses a bit of personality later on. Moonlight’s best scene, and one of the best scenes in any movie this year, is an exclamation point at the very end of this introduction. This emotional haymaker sets a standard that isn’t exactly matched by the following segments.
Moonlight’s second period, so to speak, is the strongest narrative of the three by far. After the first act is driven by character, the second is driven by plot. Little, now the teenage Chiron, becomes the film’s emotional center. His difficult home life and equally challenging school life, regardless of your own personal history, are made relatable by powerful storytelling. Moonlight feels very real, at times disturbingly so, from its characters to its premise. This narrative climax allows audiences to fully invest themselves in Chiron’s story. There’s another memorable moment, this time with his mother, and Moonlight begins to paint the picture of a no win situation. All things considered, Act 2 is Moonlight’s best movie.
Act 3 is the most jarring in several ways. The time jump is substantial and, unfortunately, I felt the quality took a significant hit. Most of the questions, comments and concerns accumulated between two captivating chapters either feel unaddressed or unfulfilled. It is not only the slowest third of the movie, but the most emotionally weightless as well. For the first time, it occurred to me that our lead was portrayed by a different actor. The transition didn’t feel natural in any way. The character had changed significantly, which was intentional. The guy didn’t even look like his younger self, which can be overcome. But the damaging factor for me was that it didn’t seem as if the events and history of Acts 1 and 2 were driving these characters. I may be too harsh on what was a perfectly decent stretch, but decent has a tendency to stand out when surrounded by greatness.
Moonlight may be more about the journey than the destination, but it is important for films like this one to stick the landing. For that reason, a slow third act does somewhat deflate the accomplishments of earlier moments. The ambiguous ending wasn’t the problem. I actually would’ve ended the film 20-25 minutes earlier if they were going for ambiguous, and it might’ve helped. But there are more than enough sources of genuine emotion in this movie. There’s also some very unique cinematography and camerawork that almost adds a fantasy element to the very grounded story. All things considered, there’s definitely a Best Picture somewhere in Moonlight, but it’s not the most cohesive nominee you’ll see this year. Your fondest memories of this film will likely involve a selective memory, one that will be deeply affected by great moments. I don’t agree with Moonlight’s big Globes win, but I definitely understand it. And it’ll be on the list for anyone not wanting to be confused throughout Oscar night.