Going into this movie with full acknowledgement of its post-festival hype, I was surprised by how small a movie Moonlight turned out to be. I don’t mean small as in bad, but small as in intimate. Moonlight isn’t a movie about capital-I Identity, it’s about the identity of one man – it’s main character, Chiron. And it’s not really even about Chiron struggling to find his identity as a black man, or a gay man, it’s just about Chiron figuring out who Chiron is, and maybe not getting there.
Moonlight is a story told in three chapters that follow Chiron as a young boy, then as a teenager, and finally, as an adult; each under a different name.
The first chapter follows him as “Little” (Alex Hibbert), which is the nicer of the two derogatory nicknames his schoolmates call him. While running from bullies, he’s found by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who feeds him before returning the tight-lipped and timid child to his mother (Naomie Harris). And when Chiron is then pushed away by his mother, who we find out is a drug-addict among other things, he gets closer to Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), who become his surrogate parents. Perhaps the strongest scene in the movie is when Juan teaches Chiron to swim, which, more than symbol of baptism, reflects the Jewish tradition of a father teaching his son to swim as way to build independence. It’s no accident that right after the lesson, Juan tells Chiron that “At some point, you gotta make the decision for yourself who you gonna be.”
Chiron’s other bond in this chapter in his life is with the only friend the movie gives him, Kevin (Jaden Piner). When Chiron doesn’t want to play with the other boys at school, Kevin is the only person his age who shows him compassion, even if only to tell him he has to harden up if he doesn’t want to be bullied.
The second chapter skips teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders), and the bullying has only gotten worse for a taller, skinner Chiron who’s accepted his queerness inasmuch as it explains his outsiderness. Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), who now brags about the women he’s has sex with, has seemingly moved on, while Juan has passed away. Chiron’s mother has completely drowned under her addiction, which pushes Chiron entirely into Teresa’s care. But that’s not enough to keep the years of abuse contained under Chiron’s mild demeanor.
The final chapter skips once again to Chiron as an adult (Trevante Rhodes), and we see that he’s become the splitting image of the only male role model he really had growing up. But even though his past life is now far behind him, a call from a former friend (André Holland) stirs up old feelings.
While Ali and Monáe may be the most likable adoptive parents since the Kents, and Harris manages to create a surprisingly sympathetic performance out of what could have been a totally one-note role on paper, Moonlight is made by the performances of Hibbert, Sanders, and Rhodes as Chiron. It’s amazing how fluidly each actor carries the torch from the last, with concrete yet inherently linked performances that show everything that needs to be shown about Chiron at each stage in his life. Hibbert doesn’t just play timid and shy, he conveys how guarded Chiron is. He’s a kid that already knows incredible hurt and is preparing himself for a lifetime of it, even if he doesn’t know that yet, and he still manages to maintain that intrinsic childlike curiosity of the world, even though all of it seems dangerous. Sanders’ teenage Chiron is even more confused, with a childhood of rejection bubbling into a rage just under the surface, and deeper still is that same scared boy who doesn’t know where he fits. And as adult Chiron, Rhodes sells his posturing as a way to protect the man under all the muscles as someone who never learned how to love or be loved, and scared to try. The same goes for Piner, Jerome, and Holland, who take Kevin from a kind kid, to a teenager caught between popularity and loyalty, and finally an adult who’s managed to make a life he can be happy with. Moonlight would not be even half as good without those six actors each fully inhabiting these characters. So much of this movie is communicated in long stares, quivering chins, nervous touches, and other subtle body language that the entire cast captured perfectly.
The same goes for the camera, that doesn’t just show us Chiron’s perspective of the world in every chapter, but his perception of himself in it. As Little, the camera is as small as he is, looking up at every adult character, and even struggling to stay above water when he learns to swim. As a teenager, the camera swerves and circles around Chiron, showing him trapped by the other teenagers ganging up to knock him down. Even though he’s much taller, he’s still the smallest part of the frame. And the camera shoots adult Chiron from a distance, focusing more on his torso than his face, showing us the him he’d rather project than the one he is. And then there’s how the camera always longingly gazes at Kevin, clueing us into that plot even before Chiron is aware of it. The shots themselves convey Chiron’s emotional truth, allowing us into his head even when he won’t.
And while Moonlight never truly escapes the inner life of Chiron, it still gives us a perspective on a type of life most films have ignored, much to the detriment of the people living them. Moonlight takes place almost entirely in a poor black neighborhood, one high in poverty, drug use, and black men already stuck in the school-to-prison pipeline, but very far from the warzones that certain politicians tell us they are, and far even from the depictions of such neighborhoods in other movies.
What struck me was how, even though almost everyone we meet in the movie is flawed, almost every character is good, or wants good for somebody else. Despite Juan’s profession, he has a deep paternal love for Chiron, treating his struggle with identity at a young age with compassion and guidance. For as much as Kevin fails to rise above the pressures of toxic masculinity in his teens, his incredibly close bond with Chiron is what shines through. Even Chiron’s mother learns to love Chiron once she resolves her own issues. Moonlight serves as a refutation of the negative portrayals of black culture as anti-intellectual or criminal that even other ostensibly progressive, well-meaning films like Dope perpetuate by showing us examples of those helpers from that one Fred Rogers quote. Only, this movie doesn’t show the helpers as running into a disaster from the outside, it shows the people already there – the people who make up that culture – helping each-other achieve.
Moonlight is being hailed as an “important” movie, and given the protagonists intersectional identity and background, plus the fact that it’s an all black cast acting under a black director adapting a story by a gay black playwright; it really is as important as people are saying. But what we should really take away from Moonlight isn’t that it’s a “black” movie, or a “gay” movie, or even an “intersectional” movie, even though it may be all those things. Above all, Moonlight works so well because it’s specific. Though an extraordinary amount of people could relate to Chiron’s story, Moonlight remains specifically about Chiron. The movie treats its one specific protagonist with incredible compassion and care, lovingly painting a completely fleshed-out portrait of the life of one man. Moonlight is the most personal movie of 2016, and that makes it one of the best.