Part 2—Unless you read the reviews: Moonlight has been described as "the best reviewed film of the year."
In her review in the Washington Post, Ann Hornaday described it that way. She then went a bit further:
HORNADAY (10/28/16): Now that it’s arriving in theaters throughout the rest of the country, viewers can finally see what all the fuss is about. And they will see a perfect film, one that exemplifies not only the formal and aesthetic capabilities of a medium at its most visually rich, but a capacity for empathy and compassion that reminds audiences of one of the chief reasons why we go to movies: to be moved, opened up and maybe permanently changed.To Hornaday, Moonlight is "a perfect film, one that's marked by "a capacity for empathy and compassion." In Rolling Stone, David Fear batted away Moonlight's designation as perhaps the year's best film:
"The truth is that Moonlight would probably be the best movie of any year in which it came out," Fear opined.
Despite uniform rave reviews, Moonlight hasn't been a giant box office success. To state the obvious, ticket sales aren't, and never have been, a measure of cinematic quality. Still, among the nine films nominated for this year's Best Picture Oscar, Moonlight currently stands as least successful at the box office:
Domestic receipts as of February 5:Those are the nine Best Picture nominees. For a glimpse of mammoth commercial success, domestic receipts for Rogue One stand at $524 million. Receipts for Deadpool, which made the occasional top ten list, are just under $263 million.
Hidden Figures: $119,402,095
La La Land: $118,306,924
Hacksaw Ridge: $66,361,363
Manchester by the Sea: $43,914,563
Hell or High Water: $27,007,844
Ticket sales are not a measure of quality. Major critics have uniformly praised writer/director Barry Jenkins for the artistry of his film. With a few reservations which we'll eventually note, we're inclined to agree with them, though only from an amateur observation post.
That said, it's worth asking why the film, for all its critical raves, hasn't sold more tickets. While noting that Hidden Figures and Fences are also "black-themed" films, we'll suggest that Moonlight may have sold fewer tickets because it's protagonist is not only black, but is also poor and turns out to be gay.
Also, because the film has no major, well-known stars (as of yet). Also, because the film will strike some people as deeply, profoundly depressing. That's certainly the way Moonlight struck us the first time we saw it, last Monday.
Is Moonlight depressing? For us, on first viewing, it very much was. Its protagonist, a boy named Chiron, is nine years old when the film begins, and he seems to be deeply traumatized by the brutality, abandonment and abuse which, as we viewers will quickly see, virtually define the circumstances of his life, even at that tender age.
Chiron, who's 9, is being aggressively bullied at school, or at least after school lets out. His mother, a crack addict, already seems to be providing little help or guidance. Her conduct spirals downward through the course of the film.
In the earliest scenes of the film, Chiron is forced to hide in an abandoned town house to escape a group of boys who apparently want to beat him up. He's rescued, and treated with compassion, by Juan, the local drug dealer—and by Teresa, Juan's (somewhat strangely?) somewhat college-y seeming girl friend.
When Chiron is returned to his home the next day, it seems that this may not be the first time he has spent the night away from the home within which he has already been abandoned. Juan couldn't take Chiron home until the next day because he couldn't get Chiron to say where he lived—indeed, could barely induce Chiron to speak at all.
Even Teresa couldn't coax words from Chiron. Therein lies a tale.
Even at the start of this film, at age 9, Chiron is virtually catatonic. Casting ourselves in the role of a shrink, we'd say he seems to be traumatized. It isn't just that he's barely able to speak. He's barely able to take his eyes from the floor in various situations, an act of self-abnegation for which Teresa is still chiding him in his later teen-aged years.
To all appearances, Chiron, age 9, is already traumatized. And how remarkable! Almost fifty years ago, this child was described in a famous book which won a National Book Award.
We refer to Death at an Early Age, Jonathan Kozol's 1967 account of the year he spent teaching fourth grade in the Boston public schools. Kozol's book begins as shown below, with a portrait of one of those fourth grade children.
Back in 1967, Kozol described an 8-year-old boy named Stephen. With remarkable accuracy, he also described Moonlight's fictional protagonist at the (presumably) heartbreaking age of 9:
KOZOL (page 1): Stephen is eight years old. A picture of him standing in front of the bulletin board on Arab bedouins shows a little light-brown person staring with unusual concentration at a chosen spot upon the floor. Stephen is tiny, desperate, unwell. Sometimes he talks to himself. He moves his mouth as if he were talking. At other times he laughs out loud in class for no apparent reason. He is also an indescribably mild and unmalicious child...Nobody has complained about the things that have happened to Stephen because he does not have any mother or father.Stephen was a ward of the state. But as with Stephen, so too here. At the start of Moonlight, Chiron, whose nickname is Little, is "tiny, desperate, unwell."
He too tends to "stare with unusual concentration at a chosen spot upon the floor." Persistently, he's unable to speak, even to look up from the street, floor or table before him.
Kozol's clairvoyance doesn't end there. Like Stephen, Chiron is "indescribably mild and unmalicious," just as Kozol said. And as with Stephen, so too with Chiron. "Nobody has complained about the things that have happened to" Chiron because, due to his mother's descent into addiction, "he does not have any [functioning] mother or father" either.
(Chiron's father plays no role in Moonlight. We don't think he's ever mentioned.)
Liker Kozol's Stephen, Barry Jenkins' Chiron is "tiny, desperate, unwell." Unless you read our major film critics describing the Jenkins film, where you will encounter few such observations.
Remarkably, Hornaday describes Chiron as "shy and guarded, the son of a loving mother (Naomie Harris) battling an addiction to drugs."
This description seems to look past Chiron's actual state, while giving his deeply unhelpful mother a major upgrade of the heartwarming type.
In the New York Times, A. O. Scott seems to display a similar type of blurred vision. At the start of his review, Scott claims he saw this:
SCOTT (10/21/16): To describe "Moonlight," Barry Jenkins's second feature, as a movie about growing up poor, black and gay would be accurate enough. It would also not be wrong to call it a movie about drug abuse, mass incarceration and school violence. But those classifications are also inadequate, so much as to be downright misleading. It would be truer to the mood and spirit of this breathtaking film to say that it's about teaching a child to swim, about cooking a meal for an old friend, about the feeling of sand on skin and the sound of waves on a darkened beach, about first kisses and lingering regrets. Based on the play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" by Tarell Alvin McCraney, "Moonlight" is both a disarmingly, at times almost unbearably personal film and an urgent social document, a hard look at American reality and a poem written in light, music and vivid human faces.The Chiron who appears on the screen at age 9 is tiny, desperate, unwell. But when he saw the film about which he gushes in remarkably scripted ways, Scott, the son of two professors, somehow thought he was watching "a wide-eyed boy" who would move on to brooding adolescence.
The stanzas consist of three chapters in the life of Chiron, played as a wide-eyed boy by Alex Hibbert, as a brooding adolescent by Ashton Sanders and as a mostly grown man by Trevante Rhodes.
Long ago, Kozol said this: "Nobody has complained about the things that have happened to Stephen because he does not have any mother or father." Reading the many rave reviews penned by our cultural elite, we saw an ironic analogue.
Few of these people seem able to see the things which have happened to Chiron. We see little empathy for this suffering child. Were we instead seeing "empathy" for a favored film's press release?
Few of our critics seemed able to see "the things that have happened to" Chiron. Reading the reviews, then rewatching the film, a question arose:
Why is that?
Tomorrow: What one Canadian saw