Moonlight is not so much a story as a character study. Its subject is a boy/young man at three stages of development, played by three different actors. We first observe him at about age 10, then as a high school student at about age 16, and then a decade later in his mid-20s. As we get to know him and see him grow up, we also get to know some of the key people in his life and see how his relationships with them develop.
Moonlight is set in the Liberty City ghetto of Miami. Its protagonist is Chiron, a withdrawn, damaged, confused, vulnerable, only minimally communicative African American child. He is bullied and ostracized by most of his peers. He has begun to wonder about his own sexuality even as an elementary school child, and even before he has much if any grasp of concepts like homosexuality, and you infer that his peers are equally in the dark about such matters yet somehow instinctively sense he’s different in some way that renders him an appropriate target for their hatred and punishment.
As I say, the movie is largely about certain key relationships, so let’s talk about the main people in Chiron’s life.
First of all there is his mother. She and Chiron live in a ratty apartment with no father (or any other family) in the picture. In an early scene she seems to be returning from work—she has an I.D. badge pinned to her chest that I think is from a hospital or something, like she’s a nurse or works in the medical field in some capacity—but it’s a wonder that she’s even functional enough to hold down a job, as she is truly a mess. (And although it isn’t stated explicitly, one assumes that job disappears soon enough, as she goes from bad to much worse over the course of the film.)
She is a crackhead, and while there are flashes where she makes at least some effort to be a responsible parent and manifests some love for her child, for the most part the drugs so dominate her life that everything else is pushed down in priority, including her son. It’s often said that a hard core addict will “sell his mother” to get the drugs he craves; that’s pretty much the level on which she operates.
Speaking of drugs, a more positive figure in Chiron’s life, surprisingly, is a drug dealer. Following a chance encounter, neighborhood drug dealer Juan takes Chiron under his wing, proving to be almost certainly more of a father figure than Chiron has ever had. It’s the kind of relationship Chiron has always craved, even if he wouldn’t admit it (since the virtually mute boy pretty much won’t open up and admit anything about himself and his needs), and, one senses, that the childless Juan craves as well.
Juan and his girlfriend Teresa (who also immediately warms to the child) provide a safe haven for Chiron whenever the situation with his mother becomes too heavy for him. Other than in the most friendly and unthreatening ways, they don’t seek to change Chiron’s uncommunicative style. Presumably they recognize that it came about as a result of a great deal of cumulative bad experiences and pain, and that if it is to be reversed it will not be by insistence, but as a gradual opening up as the result of a comparable amount of healthy influence, support, and patience.
Not surprisingly, Chiron’s mother bitterly opposes any connection between her son and Juan and Teresa.
Juan is present only in that first of three sections of the film. It’s never stated what happened to him, but there’s a passing mention of a funeral, and while it isn’t explicitly identified as his, I believe from the context that that’s what we’re supposed to infer. Though he is gone, Teresa retains ties with Chiron and remains a positive figure in his life.
Another potentially highly important relationship of Chiron’s is with schoolmate Kevin, who plays a role in all three sections of the film.
At least from what we see, Kevin is the closest thing Chiron has to a conventional friend as he grows up, though even that friendship is limited in that Chiron is barely any more communicative with Kevin than with other people.
Someone as taciturn as Chiron can be very hard to feel close to, so it would not be surprising at all for his friendship with Kevin to never get very deep and to fizzle out early. But it could go in a very different direction as well.
Certainly Kevin is more of a “normal” kid. Once they’re into their teens (in the second of the three segments) he shows himself to be more inclined to go along with their peers in order to fit in, and he’s exploring the expected drug and sex vices and bragging about it with adolescent swagger. He seems to have a soft spot for Chiron, but how will he deal with Chiron’s seemingly being considerably more socially backward and emotionally damaged than he, or with the growing indications that Chiron’s sexual inclinations lead in a very different direction than Kevin’s typical teenage boy pussy obsession?
A further strain is put on their friendship when circumstances (that result from the machinations of a particularly nasty kid at their hellish school) place them in a conflict with each other that neither knows how to avoid. Well, Kevin presumably knows how to avoid it, but it would take the kind of courage and strength of character rarely found in an adolescent boy.
Certainly there are many, many issues worth thinking about in connection with Moonlight.
Many will note—and this is addressed explicitly in the movie itself—the irony that people like Juan are among those who severely damage the lives of people like Chiron, by profiting off of crackheads like Chiron’s mother.
Juan himself is clearly troubled by this, though not troubled enough to get out of the business.
I don’t think that somehow invalidates the clearly positive role he has in Chiron’s life as a mentor.
Think of it this way: Being a drug dealer was the one path Juan saw open to obtaining a certain level of resources, and having those resources enables him to do some good in the world, such as by taking interest in a boy like Chiron and trying to help him.
Ideally you’d like to see him give up this path for something “cleaner” yet still be able to do things like help Chiron. Second best would be to do one or the other—continue on the same flawed path but also continue doing good where he can with the resources he obtains from it, or give up the hurtful lifestyle but also give up some of the ways he can do good for others. And worst of all would be to stay on the hurtful path while not bothering to mitigate the negative energy he thereby adds to the world by also finding opportunities to add positive energy.
Juan in effect has chosen one of the middle options. It’s not as admirable as if he’d found a way to do good for others without getting his money from being a drug dealer, but it’s certainly better than if he were the kind of drug dealer who is all about his own money and power and never “gives back” or tries to do good for anyone.
One point that comes to mind is something I observed back when I volunteered at a maximum security prison and got to know some of the guys in there fairly well: There are many legal and “respectable” ways to live and to obtain an income that in the long run do the same or more damage to people’s lives than some of those activities we choose to treat as criminal. The difference is, I actually think the “criminals” stand a better chance of seeing the error of their ways, so to speak, and changing for the better, precisely because they have the advantage of being hated and vilified for what they do.
Which is not to deny that criminals also receive lots of positive reinforcement for what they do—after all, Juan didn’t get that nice house and hot girlfriend in spite of getting rich off drug money but because of it—but at least society offers plenty of discouragement as well for behaviors like drug dealing, and as a result Juan is provoked to question himself and his life choices.
But contrast this with the way bankers, Fox “News” employees, lobbyists, etc., who do a lot more harm than any drug dealers, are not similarly treated as criminals and moral pariahs. What hope is there for them? Other than from a few weirdo leftists or moral goodies goodies that they can easily ignore, they get no wake-up call. There is no one alerting them that they really need to take stock of their life choices.
So I’m less surprised when someone like Juan develops self-doubt and questions whether he has placed himself on a wrong path in life than I would be if more clearly evil folks like Henry Kissinger or Ann Coulter or someone working at a PR firm that represents fossil fuel companies did.
A related, sad, aspect of Moonlight is its depiction of the normality of certain outrageous phenomena in an area like Liberty City. For people in that community, it’s just an ordinary part of life that illegal drugs are ubiquitous, that the drug trade is one of the few even minimally promising options for those wanting to escape from extreme poverty, that schools are crowded, unsafe, violent environments, that a high percentage of young people will be imprisoned at some point in their life, etc.
In updating each other about their lives after several years of not being in contact, one of the characters mentions in passing that he’d done time “for the stuff we always go to prison for” (or something like that; I don’t recall the exact wording), just as a mundane fact, the way someone else might mention “I worked in retail for a couple years,” or “I took a few classes at the community college.”
The outrageous generates little outrage, because it’s just how life is.
There’s also much to reflect on in Moonlight about growing up in that kind of environment if you are of anything other than the most conventional sexuality, which is a kind of tough guy, macho heterosexuality. Indeed, if you had to single out just one theme, just one thing that the movie is primarily about, my guess is that that’s what most viewers would reference.
I actually don’t have a lot to say about that aspect of the movie, beyond that it serves as a reminder that what I suppose could be called the “liberal” position on homosexuality is self-evidently correct: That it’s ridiculous that people insist on causing other people misery based on which gender they prefer to have sex with, and that we’d be far better off facilitating and taking joy in people’s coming together in relationships that make them happy rather than punishing them for it.
In the end, there were two things that most stayed with me after seeing Moonlight.
One is just how important it is to emotional health to be able to open up to others, to communicate, to show vulnerability. You need relationships of trust like that, especially when you’re a kid, especially when you’re in pain.
It’s heartrending to see the young Chiron so unwilling or unable to express himself. Even with Juan and Teresa it’s much more the exception than the rule that he ever opens his mouth (other than to eat—they’re quite generous about feeding him), though those exceptions are just about the only time you see much happiness or growth in him.
Which is not to say that the more one talks the better, since being an excessively extroverted blabbermouth can be just as much a way of avoiding genuine connection as being in a shell can be. I’m talking about having people in your life that you can be real with, that you can speak from the heart with. That’s what is so lacking in Chiron’s life, though the film ends with hope that he may have finally found that kind of connection with another human being.
The other point Moonlight drove home for me is how tragic, how frustrating it is that one of the consequences of oppression is that it tends to cause the oppressed to turn on each other.
This is most apparent in the high school scenes, though exploiting desperate people by selling crack to them is another instance of it. But when these kids are bullying each other, and engaging in their violent displays of faux manhood, I just want to shake them and say, “I understand your life sucks, that you’re angry, that you want to strike out at someone. But I guarantee that it’s not that other equally miserable 16 year old that you’re directing your rage against who is ultimately responsible for the fact that you have a shitty life.”
Then again, it’s not just the oppressed who would be a thousand percent better off working together than victimizing each other, it’s humanity as a whole.
I want to mention also that Moonlight is expertly shot, from the seaside scenes, to the broken glass strewn around a room in an abandoned building where a young Chiron cowers in fear, to the close ups of a character’s hands as he lovingly prepares a meal. Really all the intangibles of this film are excellent. This is thoroughly professional, at times remarkable, filmmaking. It consistently sets just the right mood, and effectively provides the necessary relevant information.
That last point is especially important, since this is a film with a largely uncommunicative protagonist. Much about him, his life, his circumstances, and the story that would normally be conveyed through dialogue must be inferred.
Most movies of that type—where little is stated explicitly and you’re constantly having to read between the lines, to make inferences based on minimal, subtle evidence—are highly obscure, whether intentionally or not. But I’m struck by how effortlessly I could follow everything that was happening in Moonlight, and how well I could understand and empathize with Chiron and the other characters.
One final example of how Moonlight invariably hits just the right note is its use of Barbara Lewis’s Hello Stranger at the end. This is a song that was certainly recognizable to me (it’s the sort of 60s chart topper commonly played on oldies stations) and that I like more than not, but it’s not one I’ve heard a huge amount or ever listened all that closely to the lyrics or anything. But I certainly listened closely to it here, and I’ll be damned if it’s not exactly the right choice the way it’s used. It makes what would already be an important scene an even more emotionally moving one.
Moonlight is a beautiful movie, a moving portrait of a sad and memorable character, and a reminder of how our life choices directly and indirectly can ease or intensify the struggles of those around us.