“Who is you, Chiron?” Characters pose this question – or, perhaps, exhortation – to the protagonist of “Moonlight” as he ages. It’s not exactly so much an inquiry in search of answer as it is an expression of confusion at the bundle of contradictions and inconsistencies before them.
Writer/director Barry Jenkins makes these divisions of the self apparent by showing Chiron at three unique stages of his development, portrayed by a different actor at each phase. All bear a different name as well. Alex Hibbert’s Little is the youngest, a boy who makes his earliest attempts to make sense of his emotions and environment in drug-riddled Miami. Ashton Sanders’ Chiron navigates the tricky straits of adolescence as a sensitive, withdrawn teenager with no real recourse or comfort. Trevante Rhodes’ Black swaggers about with the toughness of a man, but that confidence wilts away when standing in front of key figures from his past.
These are three personas, but how does one reconcile them into one consistent identity? Chiron’s crack-addicted mother, Naomie Harris’ Paula, certainly can’t. The closest thing he has to a friend, Kevin, only manages the occasional peep beyond the posturing and performance. And given the way that Jenkins structures the film, we as the audience are not meant to click these into place like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Making sense of a person is not this easy. There are gaps we cannot fill, thoughts we cannot know.
Some of the uncertainty comes from figures like Mahershala Ali’s Juan, a role model and surrogate father who also supplies Chiron’s negligent, irresponsible mother with the drugs that fuel her descent into chaos. The solution and the problem can be contained within the same thing, Juan illustrates … and then he disappears by the film’s second act, his absence explained only by a character’s off-hand remark.
Chiron comes to find some sense of solace in these easy dichotomies. So long as he knows where he fits in the binary of aggressors and victims, strongmen and weaklings, he can carry himself with some sense of certainty. But when it comes to the complexities and ambiguities, Chiron immediately reverts to the sheepish, shy ways of his Little persona. Jenkins’ multi-pronged formalist approach to portraying these combusting forces, from frame rate shifts to impressionistic camera moves to vivid coloration, brings this turmoil to life.
It’s tempting for those watching “Moonlight” to judge it on another polarity, that of specific and universal. Jenkins clearly articulates a black, queer and working-class perspective. It’s possible to relate to the film from outside those vantage points, although such a response considered outside the particulars of Chiron’s scenario does a disservice to this underrepresented world. Yet the humanity and compassion emanating from every frame of the film folds the spectrum into a circle where specific and universal are not positioned as opposites. Rather, they are two means of achieving similar ends. Jenkins’ mining for the truth of one person’s true self through familial discord and unrequited love offers up a toolkit for anyone willing to examine the chasms and redactions that define their own life. B+ /