I have seen so many hackneyed and bloodless films lately that I long for the days of incestuous Adam Sandler comedies and vaguely inspiring Christian fare (I’m looking at you, “God’s Not Dead”). Over spring break, I watched much of the same bland and cowardly cinema characteristic of Hollywood’s mercantilist fleshpot studios, flicks which are undeserving of any recognition and yet inevitably end up nominated for several Academy Awards. As my faith in American cinema slowly slipped away, just like my self-confidence did at puberty’s savage onset, I was rescued by a bijou film that ought to serve as a paradigm for what movies can and should be — “Moonlight.”
But let’s get some exposition out of the way first, so I can head off the virulent trolls who so frequently stalk my articles (*cough, cough* Mom). I still haven’t seen “La La Land,” and I don’t particularly care to. I am in no mood to watch beautiful people burst into song, as it tends to remind me of my own bone-numbing loneliness. I would be every bit as handsome as Ryan Gosling if I were also paid millions of dollars to look at my feet while dancing. Nonetheless, I should maybe watch “La La Land,” so then I can make informed judgements about it.
Enough about that. The first thing I adore about “Moonlight” is its utter refusal to follow the formulaic plot structure of the standard Hollywood screenplay. Its action is divided into three acts, each a dreamy agar upon which the filmmakers smear their characters and let them spread. There is no inciting incident which sets into motion the rest of the plot. Instead, each act pivots, or perhaps sways, about a fulcrum. For example, in the first act, the protagonist, Chiron, meets his mentor, Juan, and the remainder of the act follows this relationship. As a result of this tripartite arrangement, the film shifts and drifts along a waving, subtle thread of connectedness. Indeed, the plot’s looseness lends the film a verisimilitude — no one’s life follows the simplistic and taut plot points of fellow best picture nominee “Hell or High Water.” We languish, lounge, molder, roused by chance occurrences or the occasional absurd impulse. Our lives reach no singular dramatic crescendo, but are punctuated by dolorous little tragedies and wonderfully modest triumphs. Shouldn’t our movies reflect this?
Perhaps the most conspicuous virtue of “Moonlight” is its sheer visual beauty. Each shot is a joy to behold. I especially appreciated its attention to light and color. In a rather pivotal, but soundless, scene, Chiron’s drug-addled mother stands in the hall and screams at him. All the abstractions of this emotion are distilled in the pulsating purple light which pours over her. It limns every contortion of her face in an electric bruising, shocks the otherwise mute pantomime into raging animation. These elements are also used more delicately elsewhere, such as the second act’s beach scene, in which a romantic encounter with his schoolmate, Kevin, confirms Chiron’s burgeoning sexuality. Silver moonlight flutters over the ocean and swaddles every curve of the characters’ faces, transforming a moment of venial adolescent sex into a flash of the lilting tenderness which so escapes Chiron for the rest of the film.
Above all, though, the film’s undeniable vulnerability compels even the most callous and cynical moviegoer (me). We see it most explicitly in the third act, in the long and unbroken shots of Chiron’s face. His teeth hide behind his grill just as so much of him huddles behind the accoutrements of brazen masculinity, but his eyes wander back and forth, attempting to discern the turbid, erotic ambiguity of his relationship with Kevin. And what burns most in that febrile sclera is desire, a desire to be held by anyone, and thereby be delivered the affection a vacant childhood home denied him. Here, the emotion is palpable, sincere, inexhaustible.
This is what American cinema needs more of, baroque and robust films which master their aesthetic while at the same time presenting an astounding emotionalism. The similarly acclaimed film “Manchester by the Sea” attempted to do this, but failed utterly, thanks in no small part to Casey Affleck being a fantastically untalented actor. It erected a cardboard cutout of grief and filled it with characters who were either cynical jackasses with witty lines or cynical jackasses with mumbled lines. Its characters are smugly self-pitying, thoughtlessly engaged in a charade of introspection. Their grief is neither urgent nor brooding but stolid and indulgent in its affected terseness. In “Moonlight,” Chiron also mumbles and sulks, but this facade belies a vibrant emotional cosmos within. The difference lies in both exceptional acting and the filmmakers’ delicacy. We do not need Chiron to say anything, because in his silence we can detect the whispers of his melancholy and the whistles of his yearning. When the movie ends, his face disappears from the screen, and yet these emotions still vibrate in our ears. That, in my always correct and ever condescending opinion, is good cinema.