The visual style shows people as essentially solitary, a remarkable choice of perspective in view of the importance of the wider social realities – racial and sexual – that “create” Chiron and make him see himself as he does. If you live in Moonlight’s world, you are hapless and lonely – without the chance intervention of individuals who can save you from this condition.
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Moonlight has stayed with me since I first saw it, on its release, perhaps because it’s an odd mixture of elements that add up to an experience like none other. It’s an unusual, even strange film, and a challenge to describe.
It’s better and more interesting than some of its elements would seem to allow. The script overall gets, generously, a B– (I was an English teacher). A couple of days before I saw Moonlight, I watched a gay-subject film in which the protagonist’s best friend (closeted lover? I can’t remember) is goaded into beating up the protagonist in a schoolyard. A cliché of gay-movie storytelling originating way before these films, it’s probably the key story event in Moonlight; it will lead Kevin, the friend, to instigate the final reunion.
Other episodes less critical to the film’s momentum nevertheless put a drag on it. The reconciliation/forgiveness scene between mother and son is TV-movie-like, extraneous and poorly written. I don’t love saying so, since so much of the film’s meaning attaches to the scene (and many people associate the film’s overall effectiveness with it), but the teaching-to-swim scene felt unoriginal to me, and the end of the scene – the boy swims! – so unnecessary that I removed it as I watched, willed it away. The scene is beautifully shot, however, and will lend power to later scenes (notably the seaside episode between Chiron and Kevin). Something banal made into something powerful: a typical – even emblematic – process in this film.
The characterizations, and the relationships among characters, can be sketchy. Juan’s girlfriend is only goodness and compassion, qualities that can barely generate realistic personal interaction; her scene alone with Chiron in the bedroom has a thinness that not even the competent actor who plays her can redeem. And though the mother is a powerful figure – often a terrifying figure – oddly, the relationship between mother and son doesn’t feel complete.
The film’s often “beautiful,” of course – anyone can see that – but its visual style is very much in the service of how it sees its characters. The time and space with which the photography surrounds them we feel as an attentiveness to – a respect for – their own particular emotions and states. I’ll overstate and say that the style attempts a direct gaze at selfhood (and has a thematic function therefore). The last section of the film hasn’t a single memorable line, but it culminates the visual style (we see that the future of Chiron’s very self is at stake) and is gripping.
The good actors justify the style – this is a paradise for nuance. The less good actors are exposed by it. The boy who plays the young Chiron looks right, but he’s not an actor, which becomes clearest when, in the key scene with Juan and his girlfriend, he has to say “What’s a faggot?” and his succeeding lines in dialogue with Juan. These are the weakest moments in the script – right-minded social messaging, in too-fluent language. (Critics light on them because they’re thematic and ready for print.) But the scene nevertheless has something wonderful in it: the swift but delineated series of looks on Juan’s face – thoughtfulness, sensitivity to the boy’s state, suppressed self-consciousness and willed calm, even a mute appeal to his girlfriend for support – as he prepares his response to Chiron’s question. We see, displayed, a kind of test of Juan’s goodness.
The film’s strengths make me impatient with its weaknesses, which in turn make its successes startling: that’s the Moonlight experience. The actor who plays the school bully is terrible – how hard is it to cast a good bully? The actor who plays the young Kevin struggles amateurishly with his brashness and bravado, is better in the sensitive scene with Chiron – and then superb at his wordless horror and guilt throughout the beating. (That’s Moonlight for you.) I think we feel some relief, in the last part of the film, that the film has shed the burden of young actors.
I’ll finish by saying a couple of things about the film’s content – first what it isn’t about, then what I think it is. It’s not a gay love story, or even a coming-out story. Kevin is straight, enthusiastically so. But his spontaneity and game lawlessness, and his kindness, allowed him, as a boy, to recognize and respond to Chiron’s tortured need. The seaside masturbation is surprising but, as a bold act of physical affection, right. His comforting of Chiron at the end is compassionate – it’s a pietà image – with nothing sexual in the atmosphere. Through the image we see Chiron and Kevin at the beach again, but with the addition of the suffering and loneliness that have intervened in both their lives, and that create the tone of the image. (Why so many people are eager to add love and sex here is worth a discussion all its own.)
The visual style shows people as essentially solitary, a remarkable choice of perspective in view of the importance of the wider social realities – racial and sexual – that “create” Chiron and make him see himself as he does. If you live in Moonlight’s world, you are hapless and lonely – without the chance intervention of individuals who can save you from this condition. These interventions are fortuitous, a kind of grace. Chiron is lucky to come under the influence of Juan, who’s in turn lucky to have his girlfriend. The young Kevin is another unsought rescuer. Then Chiron loses both Juan and Kevin, and loses himself – becomes Juan if Juan hadn’t had his girlfriend. And then that lucky phone call. The importance of this kind of personal influence – of these lifelines thrown to us by chance – is sacred in the film. I’ve never seen a film attempt this idea. (I’m ecstatic that it has no religious underpinning.)
The movie ends with its two best moments, both brief but hauntingly evocative: the image of Chiron leaning against Kevin and then, suddenly, the image of Chiron the boy alone on the shore, at night, looking back at us. The End. I could never say why this last image is so powerful. At the very least (it does more), it invites us to review all of Chiron’s experience – twice: as it actually developed, but also as it might have developed – more disastrously – without the interventions that saved him. (Well, “saved” overstates it – his future will be better but hardly untroubled.) At the same time, the image makes a deep appeal to our own protective instincts. Where would any of us be without lucky gifts of goodness and compassion?
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All images are screenshots from the film.