This first act of Moonlight is its best. Ali won an Oscar for his nuanced performance. Hibbert, without speaking but a few words, is equally good. Juan's girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe) is another positive influence in Little's life, something he desperately needs. There are moments of reflective beauty throughout this first act that seem to define Jenkins' vision. It's unpredictable and deeply absorbing.
Unfortunately, Jenkins' resorts to rather easy convention for acts two and three, a choice that deflates early expectations. The middle part finds Little, now a high school teen, going by his given name Chiron (Ashton Sanders). Juan is now deceased. Chiron still sees Teresa, but we're given no indication of how long it has been since Juan passed. Soon Teresa is rather unceremoniously dumped out of the picture, leaving us to watch Chiron's pained interaction with his peers. If you've never seen a film about a bullied teen, specifically a gay teen, it may very well feel fresh and revelatory. But all the promise of the first act has evaporated, leaving a sometimes cliched "story" that comes across as disappointingly rote.
In the third act, Chiron is now an adult known by the nickname Black (Trevante Rhodes). Having apparently learned absolutely nothing from Juan and Teresa's lessons of self respect and empowerment, the adult Chiron is superficially a carbon copy of Juan. He not only looks like him, he's assumed the least appealing aspect of Juan's legacy—dealing street drugs. It's daring, if nothing else, to present an unlikable protagonist. But it can also be highly unsatisfying to follow the path of an inert character. Throughout Moonlight, Chiron is inarticulate and never demonstrates anything but below-average intelligence. Yes, he's emotionally paralyzed over his seeming inability to come to terms with is sexual orientation. But the choices Chiron makes, chiefly his decision to make his living as a criminal, do nothing to endear us to him.
Moonlight is not the first film about inner city youths dealing with poverty, violence, and drugs. Nor is it the first film about gay black males (among the most acclaimed and illuminating are documentaries; see Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied, Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning, Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason). That, of course, doesn't invalidate Moonlight. In no way is the suggestion being made that a "quota" of "gay black" films has somehow been met. But for a film so universally acclaimed, I can't help but note how relatively little it adds to what is already out there. It's not without positives. The acting is uniformly excellent (however inscrutable Chiron remains throughout, each of the three actors portraying him manage to instill the character with depth). From a purely aesthetic standpoint, Moonlight is a work of great visual artistry and the score by Nicholas Britell is richly evocative.
But from a narrative standpoint, Moonlight doesn't come together. After the stumbles in the second act (the elimination of Juan, by far the film's most interesting character, is an irredeemable misstep), a strong third act might've turned a decent film into something truly special. Any true, measurable development of Chiron's character just isn't happening here. Another central figure in Chiron's life is his childhood friend Kevin (also portrayed by three different actors), whose orientation is not entirely clear. Kevin is more of a plot convenience than a character, serving whatever purpose is needed for each of the three parts. Some have tried to sell Moonlight as a "gay love story," but by the end of the film the only thing that's 100 percent certain is that Chiron and Kevin are not in love (as adults they scarcely even know each other). Chiron is every bit as emotionally tortured and confused by film's end as he is at the outset.
Lionsgate's Blu-ray includes: Barry Jenkins' audio commentary, "Ensemble of Emotion: Making Moonlight" (22 minutes), "Poetry through Collaboration: The Music of Moonlight" (ten minutes), "Cruel Beauty: Filming in Miami" (six minutes).