Moonlight is a contemplative masterpiece of filmmaking, and a profound and subtle meditation on the fragile construction of masculinity. It’s a shattering tour through the aching vulnerability of boyhood, and the glowing embers of boyhood that continue to smolder inside the cooler pretensions of manhood. It explores how we piece together a makeshift identity for ourselves from the alternating threads of trauma and tenderness with which adults and other children pierce our hearts as we grow. And it turns a fierce, compassionate light on the ways that we boys and men armor ourselves against the emotional and physical violence of homophobia, and how the armor we grow to protect ourselves becomes a hardened shell in which we live out the rest of our lives, seemingly protected but actually trapped inside our protection.
The confusion and pain of Chiron, the film’s young protagonist, are the emotional current that charges the film from beginning to end. Spanning three stages in Chiron’s life—from boy to teen to young adult–the film succeeds at something few films can: taking place on two different scales of time. On the epic scale of a human life, we watch Chiron grow from boy to man; but his growth is revealed to us on the very small scale of individual moments that gradually accumulate to shape who he will become. Director Barry Jenkins takes his time with these moments, and in each moment’s isolated intensity we feel the emotional current that will sweep Chiron along the arc of his story. That three different and equally brilliant young actors are able to bring the same emotional current into these moments, across three distinct parts of Chiron’s story, is one of Moonlight’s overwhelming triumphs.
Chiron’s confusion and pain are not abated during the moments of love and affection shown to him by his drug-addled, narcissistic mother; her displays of maudlin tenderness, alternating with outbursts of incoherent rage, obscure her behind her own thick veil of confusion that puts Chiron at a cautious distance from her. Instead, the glimpses of tenderness that give Chiron a sense of hope come to him, for the most part, through his interactions with other boys and men. Juan, an unlikely surrogate father figure who appears in Chiron’s life at the right moment, shows him the redemptive power of paternal love, even though the love of a father is not truly his to offer. And an awkward, unexpected moment of intimacy shared with his friend Kevin will linger with Chiron for the rest of his life.
The harrowing kitchen table conversation when Chiron asks Juan, “What’s a faggot?” is one of the film’s turning points. Juan explains that “faggot” is a word people use to try to make gay people feel bad about themselves, perhaps the simplest and clearest explanation of its purpose that I’ve ever heard. Chiron asks how he can know if he is one. Juan tells him that he might be gay, but he can’t let anyone define him as a faggot. And he leaves Chiron with the freedom of knowing that he doesn’t need to figure it out right now, at such a young age. “At some point,” Juan tells him in another conversation, “you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. You can’t let anyone make that decision for you.”
Chiron is every boy who grew up not conforming to society’s expectations of what masculinity looks and acts like. Early in the film we see him standing on the edges of a soccer field, watching other boys play, longing to join in but unable to do so because he is not welcome, and he is not welcome because he is “soft.” He stands on the outside of his life looking at it, wondering how to get in. As the boys grow into teens and their games grow more vicious and dangerous, Chiron falls prey to merciless bullying at school. When Chiron finally retaliates against the bully, it’s a moment that will alter the direction of his life, and it echoes Juan’s advice about deciding who you’re going to be. Later, when we meet Chiron as a young adult, living in Atlanta, we immediately see evidence of how much Juan’s influence shaped him: Chiron now drives the same kind of car, with the same dashboard decoration, the same gold fronts on his teeth. He walks now with the same chiseled, muscular body and confident swagger, his vulnerability hidden and protected behind an armored facade of symbolic masculinity.
But what is hidden doesn’t go away. When a visit to his mother (now living in a rehab facility) and an unexpected phone call from Kevin invite Chiron to re-open his past, he accepts the invitation. Going against the things he has taught himself in order to survive, Chiron seems to know, intuitively, that his vulnerability is actually the source of his greatest strength.
Moonlight is about the construction of an entire human life. Chiron’s is a life layered inescapably with complex social issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, drugs, violence, the trauma of family, and a particular sense of the place (Miami’s poorest sections) where that life was constructed. But within the film’s contemplative substrata, hidden within Chiron’s armor and tenderness, is the suggestion that a human life may be constructed from all of these elements, but it is not truly defined by any of them. As Juan said to Chiron, “You gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be.”