Right now, I’m in the middle of reading Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back, a sweeping story of Hollywood’s involvement in World War II, and the film directors that were hired to make documentary and propaganda films during one of America’s most trying periods. And considering the state of things right now, it’s hard for me not to think about the fact that during the depression in the 30’s and World War II in the 40’s, half of all Americans were going to the movies on a weekly basis, both as a way of escaping and engaging with the world. The same thing happened in the Vietnam and Watergate-ravaged ’70s, as I was talking about in my Network piece. And I think you very well could make the case that movies served as a great escape in the aftermath of 9/11, considering 2001 was the year that birthed juggernauts like the Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter franchises.
So I could be way off base with this — especially since any and all human-influenced predictions should be deemed irrelevant at this point — but I think people will be returning to the movies in the coming months. I know that may seem like a foolish prediction considering the dire state of the theater business in 2016, but I think the communal aspect of movies is what people need right now. Because I still think there isn’t another art form out there that is both as deeply humanistic and also as populist as filmmaking. There is no other art form that forces you to look another human being in the eye and understand their pain, their joy, their hopes, their dreams, and their failures the way movies do. And it’s hard to think of a better film that encapsulates that in 2016 than Moonlight.
Moonlight is one of those movies where describing the plot seems a bit pointless, since it’s all in the small details and subtle bits of both beauty and heartbreak that reveal themselves. But since this is that obligatory part of the review… Moonlight very narrowly focuses on Chiron, a quiet black kid growing up in a rough-and-tumble part of Miami. The story is divided into three separate chapters — one focusing on him as a young kid, the middle him as a teenager, and the final as a young, ripped man in his early twenties. Or at least that’s what I assumed. The film is never super clear about its continuity, as the three actors who portray Chiron don’t look super similar, while lots of character and story details are never definitively filled in by the end.
Though I suppose the one constant running through the story is that Chiron is a kid that doesn’t really fit in to his surroundings. In the film’s earliest chapter, he’s constantly being chased and teased for being, well, different. It then becomes apparent that Chiron might meet be gay, which carries over into the second and probably most compelling chapter, where he acts on these urges of embracing his homosexuality, and also endures the most pain because of it. Which makes it hard to wrestle with Chiron’s fate in chapter 3 when he becomes a thugged-out version of himself that forces the audience to ask “whatever happened to Chiron?”
And I suppose that’s where the real magic lies in Moonlight. We get to see so much of Chiron — his family (or family-type figures), his surroundings, the few moments of joy he has in his troubled life. But we never really get to the bottom of how he’s affected by these things or how these things permeate themselves within him, especially because the character remains so introverted throughout. But maybe that’s how all kids are really. They don’t make decisions, decisions are made for them. You can’t choose where you grow up or who your parents are or what your sexual orientation is, but you try to do the best you can with what you’re given.
Look, I don’t want to bring up the Boyhood comparison. But since Boyhood happens to be one of my absolute favorite movies of the last decade or so, I feel like I have to, even though I’d say both these movies take pretty divergent paths in telling stories of growing up as a 21st century American male. Though this central theme of the inability to explain why we end up the way we end up is a definite theme that Moonlight shares with Boyhood. But Moonlight feels like a more elegiac, contemplative version of the same subject matter. It lingers on moments and makes us see the beauty in just being alive, even when it’s a life that most people would prefer not to have or to even be forced to look at or think about. But hey, that’s the power of the movies, baby.