I often wonder if most other people feel as alone as I do. Even though I have several good friends, some adored workplace proximity acquaintances, a killer family, and other perfectly pleasant associations in my life, I can’t say have many close friends. I have several people in my life who I call best friends, but to whom I go months or years without so much as a Facebook conversation. Sometimes I enjoy being alone, like a bespectacled Burgess Meredith in “Time Enough at Last.” Sometimes I feel as though I deserve to be by myself, like Jack Warden in “The Lonely.” Sometimes I panic and fear that I’ll live in perpetual alienation, like Earl Holliman in “Where Is Everybody?” And as frightening and tangible as this all seems to me, I can’t be the only one who feels this way. Can I?
Does a better film about isolation exist outside of Moonlight? One so heartbreaking and triumphant in equal measure? One could point to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, or David Lean’s Brief Encounter, or even something as perverse as Mary Harron’s American Psycho as necessary precursors, but none as affecting as Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney’s unproduced play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Though intended for the stage, Moonlight is a cinematic gem, living and dying largely in Jenkins’s nimble hands, as he weaves together a miraculous coming-of-age film.
Told in three acts, Moonlight is the story of Chiron (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes, respectively)–or Little to his classmates, and Black to his friend Kevin (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome, and Andre Holland, respectively). As a young kid living in the projects of Miami, seemingly outside of time, he’s bullied by older kids for being gay, and fends for himself as a latchkey kid by his single mother Paula (Naomie Harris). Chiron hasn’t even hit puberty, but he knows how to survive. Soon, he finds a surrogate father and mother in drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). Juan, and to an extent Paula, are like any other parents. They clearly have love for Chiron, and each want the best for him, but each finds a way to disappoint them.
Late in the first act, Juan catches Paula hitting a crack pipe, and chides her for not being more responsible to Chiron, only for Paula to remind Juan that he’s just as culpable for her negligence as she is. The scene is a terrific showdown, and the only one not to be from Chiron’s point of view in one way or another, with both Ali and Harris puffing smoke out of their noses like dragons, the winner getting the last drag. The confrontation is a great scene, and illustrates the circularity that keeps Chiron trapped, because the old guard represents all of the regress and sickness that board Chiron up into dusty crack dens. Juan will give Chiron a bed, and will teach him how to swim, but he’s not going to stop slinging rock just because Paula’s hooked. And Paula might encourage Chiron to better himself by telling him to read instead of watching television, or even send him to school after stealing the cash Teresa gave to him, but she does shake down her kid to satiate her addiction. No one can win.
On the surface, one could understandably mistake Chiron for a docile kid, but he’s not. Chiron doesn’t have much to say–and might possibly have the fewest lines in the film of any of the main cast–but he’s not a dummy, and he’s got quite the fight in him. In fact, Chiron has a lot in him. One could easily write off Moonlight as the Best Picture winner that won for being a drama about a gay black man, which is profoundly missing the point, especially when Juan—in a speech that almost surely won Mahershala Ali his Oscar—directly tells Chiron he can be whoever he wants. Chiron takes Juan’s advice. He finds his own path, even when he uses that tactic to distance himself from Juan—only to eventually turn out just like him.
What’s so striking is how little the film has to do to make us understand Chiron’s circumstances. Jenkins packs in so much to the most minor beats, or will use simple film technique to totally unground the audience. Credit must go to Jenkins’s DP James Saxton, whose aquatic tones are lush and lovely, but disciplined and purposeful. The flashiest shot in the film comes at the very beginning, as we see Juan pull up to a corner and strike up a conversation, only for Chiron and his bullies to bolt down the street. Saxton’s oner is smooth and unfettered, introducing us to this environment and the generation trying to escape. This is immediately juxtaposed with a handheld shot that follows a fleeing Chiron, without any sense of stability. Yet, in a few seconds, we understand everything.
One of the more notable pattern Jenkins employs is that he will once per act, will pull a shot-reverse-shot putting us directly into a deeply claustrophobic POV. The camera gets right in Chiron’s face, as well as the person he’s looking at. These are often the most tense moments of the film, and put Chiron at his lowest or most off-guard. One of the more underrated elements of Moonlight is the sound design. We’re not treated to a barrage of shapeshifting robots demolishing each other bolt by bolt, because the film is more interested in using sound tactfully. In the scenes where Chiron is being confronted face to face, where we’re looking into the eyes of the participants of the scene, we know exactly what Chiron feels solely off of what we hear. The less we hear, the less noise, the more at peace Chiron is. The more white noise or muffled voices of adults we hear, the more confined we are with Chiron. Yet, Jenkins flips this around in the third act’s diner sequence, when he uses that same silence as an undercurrent of romantic tension.
Because Moonlight is so much about Chiron, as opposed to being about being poor, black, and gay, Moonlight is never exploitative. Rather these qualities are relevant insomuch as they affect Chiron in a certain place in time. They’re shades of humanity of a kid who barely understands himself. Moonlight might superficially about a specific type of person, but how specific can what he feels be? Because to feel like Chiron doesn’t have to be to the same extremes. Chiron isn’t ambitious. He’s not trying to win everyone over. He’s just trying to be him. How is something so basic and unobtrusive such a battle? Why is that what we settle for? Moonlight doesn’t settle. Over and over, Chiron finds an out, but not before, in the film’s last moments, facing the ocean, and then turning back to us, letting us know that we don’t have to be alone.