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BFI London Film Festival 2016 Review: Moonlight

"One very powerful note only takes you so far"

Moonlight PosterMoonlight is a profoundly intimate character study with powerful performances, but its dramatic potential is completely undone by lackluster pacing.

Written and directed by Barry Jenkins and based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Moonlight explores the life of a young African-American man named Chiron (Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes) by moving through three distinct time periods – youth, adolescence and adulthood. It’s a journey of self-discovery with a richness of character that finds truths in stereotypes. The characters feel like real people which makes their experiences connect on a basic and human level. Moonlight 1

The problem is that everything in the movie moves at the same speed. Camera movements, line delivery, tone and the pacing of the story all have the same mellow, deliberate flow to them that makes a two-hour long movie feels like it’s three and a half hours. It’s numbing to the senses and makes you forget the movie as you’re watching it. Everything starts to blur together because of the sameness of it all.

There’s no sense of rise and fall – the whole movie plays out like one long, quiet moment of intimacy and that’s a note that can only carry you so far. For all its depth of character and fine performances, Moonlight is staggeringly boring to actually watch and the plodding pace makes what should be a tremendously memorable movie far too easy to forget. Moonlight 2

It’s a huge shame because everyone in this movie delivers a solid performance. Naomie Harris as Chiron’s drug-addicted mother, Mahershala Ali as the boy’s father figure, all of the actors playing different characters at different ages – they are talented and given great material to work with.

As a series of individual scenes that grapple with complex questions of identity and belonging, Moonlight is outstanding, whether it’s Chiron as a child asking what the word ‘faggot’ means and confronting Juan (Mahershala Ali) for inadvertently encouraging the drug habit of the boy’s mother, or an adult Chiron meeting up with one his oldest friends and trying to mend an  old, deeply personal wound. The problem is that none of these beautiful, stirring moments come together as a cohesive whole. Moonlight 3

It’s possible that Moonlight would have worked a lot better as a complete had the three time period been made into a three-part mini-series – it desperately needs something to break up its monotony, and maybe something as simple as distinct cut-off points would be enough. As it stands, it’s a mediocre movie that fails to live up to is exceptional potential.

Rating
5.0
Pros
  • Rich, intimate character study
  • Great performances
Cons
  • Lackluster and boring

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