Search for identity

Moonlight is an extraordinary tale of growing up, of discovering who you are, and of hiding the truth, sometimes even from yourself.

The film is full of irony and contradiction, and this combination is one that makes this movie incredible.

We have seen many of the same challenges in films before, but this combination of black manhood and sexual identity is revealing and painful. We meet Chiron as he is running from a group of other young boys and escapes through a fence and hides in an abandoned building. Juan (Mahersala Ali of House of Cards), a drug dealer, sees him pass by and gets him out of the building. He takes him to a diner and feeds him, but the conversation is one-sided. Chiron doesn’t say anything. Juan takes Chiron home hoping his girlfriend, Teresa, will get him to talk. She feeds him more food, he talks a little, but doesn’t reveal where he lives until the next morning.

His mother, who is falling into addiction, doesn’t know what to do with Chiron. The other boys pick on him because he is different. Juan becomes his friend and Teresa becomes a refuge, like a second mother, when life becomes too challenging. Juan takes him to the beach and teaches him to swim, which may be a metaphor for teaching him how to survive the lonely life that may lie ahead for him.

The film is full of irony and contradiction, and this combination is one that makes this movie incredible. Juan, likely the only father figure Chiron has, is kind and loving and at the same time is the one who is selling drugs to Chiron’s mother. His mother, who is being sucked up by drugs, is uncomfortable with Chiron’s effeminate behavior, while Juan, who has to act like a tough drug boss to maintain his turf, is supportive of Chiron with no expectation that he deny who he is becoming.

The second section of the three-part narrative offers the story of Chiron as a teenager discovering more of who he is and paying a greater price for it. Juan is killed, but Teresa still is a refuge, as Chiron’s mother falls further into the clutch of drugs. The bullies notice he dresses differently and see him as an easy target. His best friend, Kevin, with whom he recently had a sexual encounter on the beach, is forced by the bullies to beat him up. Chiron goes home, soaks his face in ice, and thinks about his next move. He enters the classroom and flattens the leader of the gang with a chair. The police arrive and take him away.

Section three reveals the surprise of what Chiron has become. But it is really only surprising if we believe the myths that generally fill our screens of overcoming all odds and being true to who you are. The ending conversation, the longest of the film, lets us witness the reunion of Kevin and Chiron after many years. The resolution, like swimming in deep water, leaves us floating, unable to leave the life we were born into.

While Chiron understands he is gay, we never hear that word mentioned and he continues to live in the macho culture of violent power. The tale, after all, is not a grand narrative but the tale of one boy growing up trapped in a culture that doesn’t let him reveal who he is, and is one with little space to expand the options. The mother and Teresa never get to develop as characters; this is, after all, the story of a black man growing up.

The cinematography uses handheld cameras to show the frenzy of the boys surrounding him, and the waves rolling as he learns to swim. These camera moves can be disconcerting, but they do offer an emotional edge to a film that seems to hide emotions behind the hard faces these boys feel they must wear to survive. A few unusual focus pulls show how hard it is for Chiron to reveal who he is. In the end only a few people actually know who he is.

This is not a normal, rising-up-from-the-ruins-and-becoming-a-great-success film.  The protagonist doesn’t ever really find love and remains mostly alone. The mother is in rehab, but remains as needy as ever. Life has kept them close to where they started. If you want Disney, don’t bother with this film, but if you want to witness a challenging story and some great acting, take in Moonlight.


NR (some sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout)


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.