In the opening scene of Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight”, Juan (Mahershala Ali, alternating deftly between intimidation and benevolence), a crack dealer, pulls his car up to the curb, climbs out and crosses over to where one of his flunkies is running the street. And as the two men converse, Jenkins’s camera circles them, around and around, before re-following Juan as he strolls back to his car, pausing to let a group of kids run by. The intent of this arc shot is not to show off, or to nauseate the audience, but to connect the circular nature of the life a man like Juan, or anyone else in the neighborhood, might lead. This is brought home in maybe the movie’s most powerful scene, when Juan confronts the mother Paula (Naomie Harris) of Chiron, the meek kid Juan has taken under his wing. Juan can’t believe Paula would smoke crack when she has a son to care for; Paula can’t believe Juan would sell her crack when he acts like he cares for her son. The scene ends at an intentional impasse.
Not that “Moonlight” is strictly a parable about drugs. Far from it, in fact, as the question of whether to sell or whether to use is predominantly tied up in Chiron’s sexuality. Jenkins tells his story in three different chapters, chronicling Chiron as a pre-teen (Alex Hibbert), a teenager (Ashton Sanders), and an adult (Trevante Rhodes). In the first act he is un-graciously nicknamed “Little”, picked on for his size, though his acute shyness stems just as much from a confusion and fear about who he is underneath that diminutive height and weight. You see that emerge in a scene where he and the only kid who doesn’t pick on him, Kevin (Jaden Piner), have a bit of fun roughhousing. As Chiron lies in the grass afterwards, the camera lingers on his big eyes for a couple extra beats, cluing us into the fact that he has undergone something incontrovertible. That he has, and when the film moves into his teenage life we see this even more, even if you can simultaneously sense the character wanting to show it less.
If the bullying as a little kid centered around his size, here it centers around suspicions of his being gay, revealed immediately by classmate Terrel (Patrick Decile) chiding Chiron for needing a tampon. The character of Terrel is decidedly one note, but “Moonlight” knows that in high school you have to fit into one box all the time, and to to exist outside of that box is something akin to a figurative death sentence. Chiron knows this too. And the performance of Sanders is a marvel of agonizing restraint – as in, he fights every minute of every day to restrain what he feels and who he is. You never see this more acutely than in a late night subway ride when he leans against a window and hugs his backpack against his body, seemingly about to explode from what he’s bottling up. And then, he does explode, in the next scene with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome), still his friend, on the beach where they get high and finally give in to the bubbling infatuation that was always there even if they didn’t understand it, and don’t understand still.
This teenage passage ends, however, not with that act of passion beneath the stars, but with Kevin enlisted by Terrel to, essentially, kick Chiron’s ass. It’s part peer pressure, part confusion of who Kevin knows he is, and it ends with Chiron going not after Kevin but Terrel, and finally standing up for himself, which, in one of those aggravating paradoxes of life, is exactly what takes him down.
That is the trigger for the concluding passage, where Chiron is now an ex-con and hardened creak dealer. If we lose sight of Juan after the first passage, we don’t really, because Juan re-emerges in this form of Chiron, where Rhodes exudes the same mixture of intimidation and benevolence, an unspoken acknowledgement of how Juan, for good and bad, influenced his young charge. And if Juan carried an air of regret about his line of work, so does Chiron, where the film has circled back around to the dangling first act fate you hoped he might avoid.
Still, something like hope beckons when he gets an unexpected phone call from adult Kevin (Andre Holland), who is living in Miami, running a little diner after getting out of prison on parole. The two men meet in a sequence that is wonderfully unhurried and absolutely resistant to easy epiphanies. In their interaction, as they tip-toe around what is clearly weighing most on their minds, you begin to see and feel how this has weighed Chiron down for so long, how that one moment with Kevin and its terrible aftermath shattered his burgeoning transformation, marooning him. And if there are a great many tragedies present in “Moonlight” none is more tragic than the societal pressures that push a person to be someone they are not. And if Chiron loses his compass early in life, the end offers at least a moonlit glimmer of finally finding his way home.