What makes a person who they are? Among the thousand little things that define a person and shape them into the person they become, the ones that usually stand out are family, friends, environment, and a handful of moments. Some of these shape a person for the better, some leave scars. Often, the scars from the things we expect to have our best interests at heart leave the deepest, most impactful scars. These are a few of the ideas that have been floating around in my head in the wake of seeing Moonlight, a film that is deeply personal but also immensely challenging.
Moonlight breaks itself down into three chapters focused on one person. As a kid, Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is picked on by all the bigger kids in school and nicknamed “Little.” Seeking refuge in an abandoned motel, Little crosses paths with Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who takes an interest in this shy, quiet boy and his well-being, taking him home to his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae), who manages to coax information out of him in order to get him home to his mom, Paula (Naomie Harris). His mother, it turns out, is a drug addict, and Little’s home life is not all that great. One of the few bright spots in his life is his friend Kevin, who tries to tell him to stand up for himself more. Little finds himself drawn to Juan and Teresa as a grounding influence in his life. As a teenager, Chiron (Ashton Sanders), has shaken the pejorative nickname “Little” but is still taking grief from other kids at school, including one increasingly threatening bully. Home life is arguably worse with his mom. Teresa is still around, but Juan is now out of the picture. Kevin is his only real friend still, but two moments dramatically change things between them. Finally, as a young man now going by the moniker Black, he reconnects with his mother and Kevin and contemplates how his life has turned out.
Identity is probably one of the most powerful and prevalent motifs in all of film. From Charles Foster Kane, to Eastwood’s Man With No Name, to the Skywalkers in Star Wars, and the superheroes who don masks to hide their identity, it pops up everywhere in all kinds of forms. Much of Moonlight is about Chiron’s identity. The three chapters are all titled Little, Chiron, and Black. Little and Black are both nicknames that others have labeled him; Little is a name he takes reluctantly as a child while Black, a nickname given to him by Kevin in the Chiron chapter, is a name he ascribes himself as an adult, as much for protection as projection. In fact, the more that I think of it now, the importance of identity pervades this entire film. It’s how the film is able to be so deeply personal and yet feel like it is speaking to universal truths at times.
Setting aside the nicknames assigned to Chiron, there are three defining aspects of his identity. The first, obvious aspect, is being black. The black experience, while not at the forefront of the film, is there in everything and is unfortunately intertwined in Chiron’s case, with the second aspect, poverty. Most of this is due to his mother increasingly wasting her money on drugs instead of providing for them. One of the most gut wrenching moments of the film is when Chiron comes home to find an empty space in the living room where the TV used to be. That is quickly followed up by him having to take a bath by filling the tub halfway with cold water and then pouring a pot of boiling water into it to get hot water, and then use dish washing liquid for soap. The lack of a father figure is a big reason why he is drawn to Juan. The third aspect is being gay, something others seem to know about Chiron when he is Little even before he is aware, which is revealed in a heartbreaking, loaded scene at the dinner table with Juan and Teresa when he asks them, “What is a faggot?” It’s something he is aware of and struggling to conceal later as Chiron, and after a series of events as Chiron, it is something he buries deep underneath a tough exterior as Black, having learned the false lessons that his upbringing in a poor, black community that is incredibly homophobic has ingrained into him.
The complexity of identity persists for nearly every character surrounding Chiron as well. Juan is known as a dealer. That identity becomes problematic in relation to trying to be a positive male influence in Little’s life when he tries to confront his mom about her drug use. It also becomes a source of shame in the dinner table scene, where he can barely lift his head nor look Little in the eye when asked point blank if he is a drug dealer. Along with a scene where he teaches Little to swim, it’s a scene that could nab an Oscar for Mahershala Ali.
For Chiron’s mom, Paula, her drug addiction controls her for much of the film. It’s impact is suspected when Juan and Teresa are feeding Little dinner trying to find out his name and where he lives, and his reluctance to go home is evident. It’s confirmed when Little comes home early one day and finds her there with a man and she quickly scoops up all the drug paraphernalia from the kitchen table and takes it into her bedroom. Things worsen by the time Chiron is a teen; they are living in a new housing community, her behavior is more desperate, and she is openly demanding money from Chiron. All of this is severely damaging to her relationship with her son, and when we see her again with Black and she has managed to finally get clean, the question of whether too much damage has been done lingers over their interaction.
Lastly, Chiron’s friend Kevin also grapples with his identity, mostly when we see him as a teenager. He brags to Chiron about getting detention for getting caught having sex with a girl in a stairwell. His story is so obviously over the top that it’s almost certainly a lie, but Kevin, like most of the kids in their community, feels the need to project a certain type of hyper masculinity. It’s also false masculinity. And it comes into play in ways for Kevin that is destructive to the both of them. When we meet Kevin again as an adult, portrayed by Andre Holland, his life has not turned out the way he expected, but he has managed to make some kind of peace with it. It is a peace that Black desperately craves for himself.
When we meet Black, he is sporting a familiar image. A skull cap, gold grills on his teeth, a familiar car and ornament that adorns the dashboard. He has put on the identity of Juan, crafting an image for himself after someone else because he has never been able to feel comfortable or free to be himself. When Chiron and Juan first meet, Chiron has locked himself in a boarded up, abandoned motel room to hide from bullies chasing him. Juan knocks on the door, wondering why it is locked, before eventually tearing off one of the boards on the windows to get inside. In so many ways, everything in Chiron’s life has been like that boarded up room; a barrier of protection but also a barrier to keep him imprisoned. As an adult he has ventured out into the world, but it is in the visage of the man who opened the door for him and not really as himself.
Moonlight is an intimate, restrained, and affecting film. There are some clichéd camera choices, like mounting the camera on a car door that opens and closes, but any minor shortcomings the film has are easily forgivable. Director Barry Jenkins has crafted a film that is full of compassion for the characters it portrays. Early in the film, Juan is standing in the ocean, holding Little as he learns to float and, eventually, to swim. In that moment, Juan says that floating like that is like being “in the middle of the world.” It’s a fleeting good moment in a life with not enough good moments for Chiron. It’s a place that Chiron might be able to get back to if he’s willing to take down the wooden planks he has used to board himself up.
Rating 4.5 out of 5