Moonlight (2016)

(Netflix Streaming, September 2017) Somewhere in my notional Critic’s Lexicon, there’s an entry for “spotlight rot,” or the tendency for genre work to curdle in appreciation when brought to a wider audience. This phenomenon is most visible during award season, as larger and more generalist viewers take a look at nominated works. What was, up to then, a critical darling of a small group of nominators can wither when considered from audiences who may not be initially sympathetic to the work’s goals and shared assumptions. So it is that Moonlight is, without a doubt, a rather good intimate drama depicting the journey of a young black man as he confronts his homosexuality in an environment that isn’t welcoming to his nature. It’s a film shot with skill by writer/director Barry Jenkins, structured unusually enough to beg attention and blessed with impressive performances by Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris and Janelle Monáe (who’s good and lucky enough to be in two Oscar-nominated movies this year). But taken out of that context, lauded as one of the year’s best picture and seen from another perspective, however … it does feel rather dull. Matter-of-fact. Imperfect. The rigid three-act structure elides a lot of details and forces the rest in a small window. (Confining Mahershala Ali’s performance to the first act seems like a wasted opportunity.)  The small budget of the film quickly shows its limits. And the point here isn’t that Moonlight is a lesser film—after all, it memorably won the Best Picture Oscar in one of the institution’s most unbelievable presentation screw-up. But the spotlight that the film gets as !!BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR!! almost diminishes what it manages to accomplish with very little at its disposal. Time will tell if the film ages well … but it’s very possible that future film critics will wonder why it outclassed La-La Land and other contenders … and then we’ll have to explain #oscarssowhite … and maybe Trump. Sometimes, even small movies get swept up in big movements.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *