Taking place in three distinct, formative time frames of a young man’s life, Moonlight is primarily a film about identity and the important part that it plays on a person’s life. When we first meet Chiron, he’s only a child, running away from bullies in a less-than-savory neighborhood. He meets Juan, a drug dealer, and forms a paternal relationship with him. Although it doesn’t become apparent until the last third of the film, this relationship will play a significant role in Chiron’s sense of identity later on.
Apart from finding comfort away from his neglectful mother, Juan and his girlfriend Teresa provide something even more important for Chiron: guidance. For all his faults, Juan becomes an important father-figure for the child. With Juan, Chiron can actually enjoy being a kid while getting positive attention from someone who seems more equipped to take care of him than his own mother can. But Juan’s line of work directly affects Chiron’s mother Paula and her addiction. As Juan finds out for himself, Paula is a frequent customer at Juan’s corner, and whatever moral high ground Juan has is dashed as Paula taunts him about being partly responsible for her own neglect to Chiron. It might not be a fair accusation, but it rings true enough.
In one of the most powerful scenes of the film, as well as being the climax of the first act, Chiron confronts Juan and asks him if he sells drugs. Juan, shame-faced, reluctantly admits the truth. It’s a painful scene to watch because it’s clear that despite his young age, Chiron understands enough about the situation as we see him walk away from Juan. Chiron’s trust in the only positive figure he’s had so far in his life is forever changed, and not for the better. It’s also in this scene that Mahershala Ali truly shines in the film, because despite his limited screen time, Juan’s brief presence in the film is felt all throughout thanks to Ali’s ability to give Juan a profound emotional depth that’s hidden behind the character’s surface.
The next time we see Chiron, he’s a teenager, and his life has become even more complicated. Paula is consumed almost entirely by drug addiction and Chiron is struggling at school with an aggressive bully that taunts him about his sexuality. In a brief, almost throwaway line, it’s explained that Juan died fairly recently, and although Chiron can still find comfort in Teresa (Juan’s girlfriend), it’s clear that he’s not comfortable imposing on her despite her insistence.
A key moment happens in this time, as Chiron becomes sexually intimate for the first time with his childhood friend Kevin. Much like his relationship with Juan, this plays an important part in Chiron’s development and sense of identity beyond just losing his virginity. It’s the first time that Chiron manages to be completely open and vulnerable with someone else who can understand him in a deeper manner than any guardian or parental figure ever could. This makes it all the more heartbreaking when the very next day, Chiron is once again betrayed as Kevin is pressured into beating him up at the school. Newcomer Ashton Sanders is astonishing as the teenaged Chiron, delivering an emotionally impactful performance as he completely breaks down in front of the school principal, saying amidst tears how no one understands him. It’s Chiron at his lowest point, suffocated by his own helplessness as he remains trapped in an environment that is aggressively hostile to someone like him.
The next time we see Chiron, he’s a young adult and practically unrecognizable. Not simply because he’s so far removed from being the scrawny teenager that we’ve just seen, but because of the way he acts and presents himself as well. Gone is the awkward image of a skinny Chiron that screams out his low self-esteem. In its place is an aggressiveness that intimidates others, along with flashy accessories that proudly shows off his thuggish lifestyle. In short, Chiron is Juan when they first met all those years ago. And just like Juan, there is also an unmistakable emotional depth and sensitivity that’s hidden beneath the surface.
Clearly tired of being punished for being himself, Chiron has closed himself off by adapting a fake persona. It works to an extent, because clearly Chiron’s life is more stable than ever now that he’s independent, but it comes at a price of constantly rejecting and hiding his true self. He’s merely acting for the benefit of others, afraid of getting inevitably hurt if people around him find out who he really is. This act, however, is dropped when he meets with the people who know the real him. He talks to his mother Paula, who’s been recovering from her drug addiction and is planning on helping others at the rehabilitation center where she’s staying. Naomie Harris is excellent in all of her scenes, being the only actor to appear in all three different time frames of the film. Her transformation from being a neglectful mother, to a drug addict, and finally to a repentant mother trying to make up for her failures is nothing short of extraordinary.
The film slowly moves to its conclusion as Chiron and Kevin reunite, both leading completely different lives compared to when they last saw each other. Kevin is of course surprised by Chiron’s appearance, but he can still see the trademark body language that Chiron possesses regardless of his change in look. Throughout their reunion, they continue to ignore the elephant in the room regarding the time when they got physically intimate with one another. This is ultimately broken by Chiron as he finally admits that Kevin has been the only one to ever be intimate with Chiron in all his life. It’s a breathtaking moment because Chiron truly opens up for the first time, laying out all of his vulnerabilities and breaking through the façade that he’s come to wear.
It’s a poignant and powerful conclusion to the film that remains fairly open to interpretation. While I saw it as leading to a hopeful future where Chiron can finally be truly himself, the opposite can be true as well. Regardless of what happens beyond the credits, Chiron’s arc is satisfyingly complete as we get to see him reach an emotional catharsis with his mother and a positive reunion with someone who knows his true self. It’s the mark of an incredible film when we find ourselves wanting to continue following the characters in their journey after getting so involved with them, which is something that Moonlight excels at.
Beyond the film’s complexity and its beauty, Moonlight is refreshingly unique in its subject matter. It’s a film that makes us wish that more films like it were made every year, and director Barry Jenkins handles the material with such a refined and compassionate vision that makes the film so meaningful. Moonlight is an endlessly rewarding film that will leave you thinking about it for days after watching it.