I watched Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight for the first time recently, and what struck me the most about the film was how lurid and dream-like it was . Maybe that’s just the way memories play out in our minds when we reminisce, but to see it all done so lovingly was just a sight to behold. Color, words and music all collide into a kaleidoscope of emotions that literally guide us through time, where nothing is rushed. And like the best dreams, Moonlight is one where mood and feeling are paramount.
The first feeling I get when I think back about Moonlight is this sense of drift that’s present throughout the film. Whether it’s us seeing Chiron in the water with Juan for the first time or when he’s sharing a moment with Kevin under a blue moon, the movie makes real-life moments feel larger with careful camerawork, expressive lighting, epic music and evocative acting from a stellar cast. However, this sense of drift can totally transition to chaos, and no scene encapsulates that more than Paula’s shouting scene. Though her words are muted, Paula’s framing, gestures and lighting radiates a drug-fueled, red-hot fury towards her son Chiron, where we see first hand what our hero endures in his own home. These sudden shifts add punctuation to a moody piece like Moonlight, making it a dreamy and memorable piece of moviemaking.
Secondly, my feelings towards Moonlight are deeply rooted in how well it captures adolescent angst and marginalization. Chiron’s world is one of isolation, and he is bullied, beaten and berated for simply being himself. This is best exemplified in the film’s very first scene, where we find Chiron hiding form his tormentors in a crackhouse. Our hero is a textbook victim of toxic masculinity, and Jenkins’ camera shows us first hand how a boy’s sense of self can collapse when friends, family, and peers view him as being ‘less than a man’. The many scenes depicting Chiron’s desperation, sadness and confusion are strikingly relatable, making us root for him as he finds solace early on through his only paternal anchor and champion, Juan.
Sadly, it’s this admiration for Juan that makes Chiron’s life as an adult all the more difficult. After taking a chair to that asshole Terrel and, unfortunately, going to Juvie for it, Chiron emerges from it all as a grown man. However, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows for him. With only a few glances, one can easily see that he not only embodies the image of Juan, but his chosen profession as well. This brings me to the last thing that tugs at my heart about Moonlight: it’s third act.
The feelings I get from this third chapter in Chiron’s life are amazing, yet very difficult to explain. I was thrilled to see him as an adult with his own life and all, but it’s obvious that he’s both troubled and lost. It’s only when Kevin comes calling that we see Chiron finally ready (and willing) to not only confront his past, but to finally take that first step towards reclaiming himself. This is where we dive into Moonlight’s most talked about scene: the meal between Chiron and Kevin. It’s a scene for the ages really, as a shy Chiron, sitting alone in a diner, finds himself face to face with a Kevin he barely recognizes. And despite all of this, the magic is there and they both share silence and laughter over a meal that Kevin improvises with great care.
I also love this scene because we’re not only seeing a Chiron that’s shy and stumbling, but an adult Chiron who’s smiling, eating, and, in a lot of ways, rekindling something he thought he lost. Furthermore, the warm lighting, the homely setting and Kevin’s probing reveals that our hero, despite his tough appearance, is a guy who just wants to be loved for who he is. This is best exemplified when the film shifts to Kevin’s house for the finale. With both men finally together after years apart, we find Chiron in Kevin’s arms, with his face free from torment. His eyes, trapped in happiness, seem to be wandering off to some far away time in his past, where we cut to a young Chiron at the beach, draped in blue, with the ocean far ahead of him as he turns to look back at us,…at a grown, and happy, Chiron.
All in all, Chiron’s tale is a tale of a gay black youth battling toxic masculinity, homophobia and self-hatred in a world that demands that he be anything but himself. Yet Moonlight’s battle is a battle for the ages. By showing us this story, Jenkins and his team have drawn us into a dream, a quest, and an odyssey that reminds us all that, despite what others say, we are born with radiance. For me, Moonlight’s ending act captures this idea perfectly. After reclaiming his Mother’s love, an adult Chiron finds a path to himself and is embraced by the one who knew him best. And in that singular moment of joy, the film’s final moment cuts to that solitary shot of that kid on the beach, glancing back as he shines under the moonlight. Yes, the film ends here, but isn’t that the point? Chiron has found love, hope and the essence of who he’s meant to be. And from there, as we ponder about his future during the credits, we can finally see that for him, anything’s possible.