Now that I have seen Moonlight I am even more surprised that it got Best Picture at the Oscars. Not because it doesn’t deserve it but because this is not the type of film that usually gets properly recognised in American awards ceremonies. If you look at the other films that have won in this category this decade; The King’s Speech, The Artist, Argo, 12 Years a Slave, Birdman and Spotlight, varied as they are they are still of a type showing triumph over extreme adversity or being a celebration of film making craft. Interestingly Moonlight ticks both of these boxes too but the difference is the understated way in which it does so. These other movies are good but none of them are subtle. Moonlight doesn’t vigorously proclaim its message; no one shouts in it, there are no big names behind it, it was shot in just 25 days and with a very low budget. It just isn’t very Hollywood. In fact it feels more European, comparing to films like The Past, Two Days One Night or Blue is the Warmest Colour. (Yes, I know the Artist was actually European but it was hardly a foreign language film was it?)
Whether Moonlight partially owes its Oscar victory to the embarrassment felt over last year’s lack of diversity or not, it is great that it has received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ highest honour. I hope this is indicative of a new and long lasting maturity in the mainstream US film industry, both in the content of big films and in their style. It is of course wonderful that a movie with an all black cast has won the Oscar for the first time, that a film exploring LGBT issues has got the big award for the first time and that a Muslim actor has taken a statuette for the first time (and it is a shame that the card mix up has overshadowed all of this) but it is also exciting that a movie reliant purely on simple storytelling and little else has been voted the best film of the last twelve months. It is as though those truly great movies of previous years, the ones that were just a little bit too small to win the main competition, films like Room, Still Alice, Ida, Calvary and Under the Skin, have been a little bit vindicated.
When I am say simple storytelling I don’t just mean has a good screenplay though, I mean that it truly knows how to lay out a narrative in the medium of film. I love La La Land, I am certainly not one of those people kicking the film like it has in some way offended them personally, but actually I think Moonlight should have won Best Director over that film too. First off Barry Jenkins has some really good ideas about where to put a camera. There is a scene set in the sea and Jenkins shoots it low with the water lapping up and down over the lens in a way that brings the audience closer, as if we too are out for a swim. At other times he shows restraint, pulling back to give his characters some privacy during intimate moments. Elsewhere there is also some really clever use of music as with one scene that plays under the sounds of an orchestra warming up just as the protagonist too is getting ready to become the man he will become. The way the film tells its tale is also brilliantly efficient which is in the directing as well as the writing (both done by Jenkins), there is not a thing in it that doesn’t need to be there. There is no exposition and as much of the plot is delivered visually as with words.
Interestingly there is one Oscar that the film won that I am not sure it deserved. Mahershali Ali is good in the film but he isn’t particularly better than anyone else. None of the three actors who play the lead character at various times in his life were even nominated which doesn’t seem right. Naomi Harris, the biggest name in the cast, was flagged for a possible award and does give the showiest turn.
Moonlight is a lot of things. It is a coming of age tale, it is a family drama, a memoir, a high school flick and a love story. It is also a real step forward, it genuinely pushes the envelope.
Is this one for the kids?
Moonlight is rated 15. There is a fair amount of swearing, mild drug use and some quite brutal fight scenes. I suspect it is the sex references and the adult themes that have pushed the rating up though. Interestingly there is nothing explicit in the film and but for a few orgasm noises in one key scene it is all pretty mild. As with other aspects of the movie Jenkins has shown restraint here knowing that the story just didn’t need any more. It does make me rethink films like Carol and Blue is the Warmest Colour which did get quite racy, perhaps unnecessarily so. It also makes me wonder if gay sex between women is still considered more acceptable on screen than similar scenes between men. Cinema may have grown up with this film but perhaps it still has a way to go.
The Ripley Factor:
There are only two women in the cast, Harris as the main character’s actual mother and Janelle Monáe as a significant surrogate parent figure. Both are important to the story but the story is not theirs.