When I first saw the trailer for Moonlight it caught me off guard. I immediately felt intrigued by the quiet scenes, the slowness of the dialogue clouded in dark blue and green hues. Most of the characters on screen were male, but it always went back to a young black boy and Mahershala Ali, who played Juan, and seemed to be the wise friend.
Moonlight, directed by Jenkins, chronicles Chiron’s childhood, through adolescence and adulthood. The character is played by three actors (Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes). We don’t get every detail of Chiron’s life, but only the major turn of events. Every scene is part of a chapter or a change, and the gaps are left for us to imagine an unraveling that leads to the next chapter. The empty spaces in between each new chapter carry on the emotions to the next event. The film is about discovering your place in the world, who you are, and while for others it may come easily, the search for Chiron is a long and meaningful journey.
In one scene Juan takes Chiron to the beach and teaches him the basic lessons of swimming, as a father would, lifting him so he can float in the coolness of the water. In more ways than one, Juan is the only person, who can keep him afloat in a world where few understand the boy. Chiron is bullied in school by a classmate who questions Chiron’s masculinity. At home, he arrives to a mother who is usually drugged out on her own or drugged out with male company. He doesn’t have anyone to turn to for support except Juan and Teresa, played by Janelle Monáe, who lives not far from Chiron’s apartment complex. He has questions about his sexuality, but he rather hide behind silence then become ostracized by the people who put their masculinity on display, as a kind of test to weaken him. By rebelling in a quiet, conforming way, he is inviting people to pry him open and judge him.
The score of the film draws you to the urgency being felt by the characters on-screen in moments of raw clarity. Some of the best scenes are accompanied by the sound of the beach at night, the waves clashing somewhere far, the moon illuminating dark corridors, the palm trees swooning, the humid days where people are out in the streets. You can feel this hot place in the agitated moments when Chiron’s mother is in the middle of a drug-fueled argument in the heat of the night or when Chiron is walking home from a rough day in the Florida sun, and he is met with the teasing of a bully.
Chiron has a quiet demeanor and feels out of place. He never answers with more than one or two words, and even when adults bribe him with a hot meal, he still only says a few words, leaving a feeling of sadness and uncertainty in the observer. Juan and Teresa want to help him; they listen and are there for him, which is sometimes enough. Often more is said with fewer words, but the emotions expressed by the character’s actions, leave you wishing he could express those thoughts hovering above him during his interactions, especially when he stands across an old friend he hasn’t spoken to since since high school.
As an observer Chiron’s silence feels like a burden that we all carry, and when it ends you wish he could have said more, but it’s possible silence was his only defense.