Hollywood teaches us to reach for the stars. “Romantic” means longingly gazing at a cloudless night sky from a lookout point in California as much as it means a kiss. Life for dreamers in film never seems to dish up the roadblocks Chiron deals with in Moonlight. You can only look at the stars once you have learned to look straight in front of you. Chiron struggles to look anywhere but the ground.
Moonlight is free from romanticisation, but it is a romantic film. More dramatic than Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, it shares that film’s timeliness and realism. Following Chiron first as a young boy, then a teenager, and finally a young man, it is a biography of blackness, masculinity, poverty, sexuality, and external expectations.
Moonlight is the second highest rated film of the 21st century on Metacritic, second only to Boyhood. Like Boyhood, plotlessness allows us to ignore any artificial attempt at a story and makes way for snapshots of a life. Young Chiron (Little) is scared and meek, but not without potential. This potential has to be shown rather than told because Chiron tells very little. It is glanced briefly, in a rare moment of expression where among his peers in school he is enthusiastically dancing, seemingly having forgotten about everything that restricts him.
No dad and a negligent mum leads to Chiron feeling safe nowhere in particular, and he is found hiding by Juan, an incredible Mahershala Ali channeling a paternal presence and adult responsibility. Conversations, as one-sided as they are, affirm the young boy’s place in the world. Is he a faggot? Is he gay? Does it matter?
School is a jungle, a social food chain from assertive and dominant alpha males at the top to the vulnerable at the bottom, ripe for displaying aggression toward. Barry Jenkins’ directing is at its finest when calling for minute shifts in body language. As graceful as a dancer, Chiron’s body shifts from being passive to submissive, shoulders dragging to shoulders cowering. Moonlight is a visual film, with so much of what is being said happening through eye movements, hesitations, and shifts in physical attitude. Without Chiron saying much, we still know him.
Unacknowledged and unspoken urges, unrelated to other aspects of life, alienate adolescents as they try to work out who they are. Masculine bravado about female conquests are anathema to someone with no experience, and someone questioning whether female companionship is what they desire at all. The need to be held is rarely spoken by men, nor do they have frank conversations about how often they cry, or what they cry about.
Life is cyclical. As a young adult Chiron (Black) adapts clothing from Juan, emulates his confidence, and enters his occupational territory. An ambiguous man, seemingly performing society’s expectations rather than embracing his wants, needs, and fears.
A changed man, too. Physically impressive and no longer meek. What has he learned? Did he learn everything, or pick and choose? Did he learn from Juan, or negative figures in his community?
As its told Moonlight is captivating, but only once its credits roll does it wash over you. It seeks not to promote or shame the vulnerability all men have, but rather acknowledge it exists in the first place. The violence, bravado, heteronormativity, displays of wealth, and conforming to your supposed limits are all shown to be natural and human parts of the coming-of-age process men go through. It is rather horrible, but it would be surprising if many men felt it was foreign to their experiences. Not everyone goes through the same struggles as Chiron, but there is a universal internal fight between what should be and what is.
Every little interaction is important in life, and it is the most important thing in Moonlight. Indeed, the majority of the events that move life along happen off-screen and between the chapters. It is a film that is speaking to a race the way Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly does. It is speaking to a gender in a way that few have managed to. By not focusing on anything in particular, Moonlight actually depicts life itself for many – a struggle in trying to find your identity in a world that is at times disinterested, at times hostile, and, every so often, offering a little bit of love too.